Media, Message, and Motive: Why 'Why' Matters

04/09/2013 03:15 pm 15:15:57 | Updated Jun 09, 2013

One of our hometown newspapers, the Connecticut Post, ran an article on April 8 about our most recent health promotion offering, a music video entitled "The Process."

The article is well done, much appreciated, and overall provides very complimentary coverage of both the music video itself, and the larger effort of which it is a part. That effort, currently under way, is to develop a freely available health education program about diet and physical activity for middle and high school students, using music videos as a medium of engagement, entertainment, education, and empowerment.

And so the Connecticut Post acknowledged. But, inevitably, and presumably in the spirit of afflicting the comfortable after comforting the afflicted, the article ends with a certain ambivalence, quoting a vague gripe by some unspecified online commentator.

"I'm very accustomed to a mix of compliment and criticism in any public endeavor (you can't please everyone...), so frankly- this close to the article didn't surprise or bother me much. Pretty good ink overall, and that's about as good as it ever gets."

But the shift to ambivalence just before the close really bothered my wife. Partly this may be because she is less used to the pugnacious exchange of opinions that prevails in mass media and pop culture, and has skin less thick than mine. Partly, it may be because the video in question features three of our kids -- and this is just maternal instinct kicking in. Think mother bear and cubs. I pity the fool that gets between them!

But then again, my wife may well have a valid point. Particularly when one looks beyond the "what" of this music video, to the "why."

The "Unjunk Yourself" program is an offering by my 501c3 non-profit, the Turn the Tide Foundation. Our programming is offered to all, for free. Costs are covered by the generous contributions of individuals and entities interested in promoting the public health.

Our first video, "Unjunk Yourself," was shot on a genuinely shoestring budget, and involved not only donated time by my kids, my wife, and me, but very generous donations of time and effort by Kellee McQuinn of KidTribe, our director -- and others in the cast and crew.

For "The Process," we had a more substantial budget -- but still very modest relative to our needs, and our directorial ambitions to have West Side Story meet The Matrix. So again, my kids and wife and I were all "volunteers." My family covered the costs of travel to and from, and accommodation in, Los Angeles personally. My kids got their homework done on planes, because they were working hard and all but constantly while we were in LA, including production calls that began as early as 5 a.m.

I'm not complaining about any of this, nor have I heard my kids do so. But these are the facts. The video is a public health offering, pure and simple. No one makes money from it. And it features several tweens and teens who are themselves beneficiaries of healthy living, who donated time and effort and talent to paying it forward.

I think this matters, and all the more so at a time when traditional approaches to journalism are routinely conflated with opining and editorializing, and when the antidote appears to be ambivalence about everything. It seems de rigueur in modern journalism to end with what's bad about what's good, and with what's good about what's bad -- in the service of perpetual doubt about everything.

But some things really lack ulterior motives, and deserve the benefit of that doubt. Because motives matter.

I recently invoked a vintage Star Trek episode in a blog post about willfully addictive junk food. I must have Star Trek on the brain, because another episode seems directly relevant here.

In one episode of the original show, the crew of the Enterprise found itself captive to a vastly superior alien intelligence. The alien transported two of our heroes -- Kirk and Spock, along with Abraham Lincoln, resurrected for the purpose -- to the surface of a planet. It did the same with a corresponding group of "bad guys," including the inevitable Klingons, and Genghis Khan. The alien looked on at the spectator sport it had contrived to learn about the distinctions between "good" and "evil." It concluded that good and evil were the same, since both groups made use of similar methods -- such as fashioning weapons from the crude resources at hand.

But then, of course, Captain Kirk gave his characteristically rousing end-of-episode oration that set things to right. He pointed out that of course the methods were the same -- the alien had to some extent dictated the methods of struggle with the resources made available to both groups. But what differed between groups was motive. The "good" guys fought only in defense of themselves and one another; the "bad" guys fought to take what wasn't rightfully theirs. They fought to exploit, and conquer.

And so that alien intelligence learned a good old-fashioned Starfleet lesson: It's not just "what" that matters. "Why" matters, too.

Which brings us back to a mother's potentially justifiable umbrage -- and vintage wisdom about the mouth of a gift horse. Fair and balanced reporting is a good thing -- if we can ever actually get it. But perhaps the standards of what's fair and balanced should differ when critiquing a group of kids volunteering time and effort for a public health cause with no personal gain, as opposed to somebody trying to sell you something. Because the message matters, but motives matter, too.


Dr. David L. Katz;

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