by Sandi Dolbee
Journalists are great at covering epidemics. There's the AIDS epidemic. The housing foreclosure epidemic. The obesity epidemic. The blistering epidemic of Texas wildfires. School bullying. Suicides among gay teens. And so on.
But are reporters missing another kind of epidemic?
Last September, a crowd of onlookers in Utah lifted a burning car off a motorcyclist and pulled him to safety. A video of the heroics quickly went viral, and the story captured the imagination of network news anchors, talk-show hosts and People magazine.
Last week, in San Diego County, witnesses pulled a disabled woman from a van as flames shot out from under it. “The men showed up like angels,” said one of the passengers. “Six men pulled [her] over the ramp about four feet up, wheelchair and all.”
Back in Utah, another group of onlookers jumped into a freezing river on New Year's Eve to rescue three children trapped inside a car.
Then, early Monday morning, a volunteer deputy in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department arrested the man who allegedly set 52 fires over the New Year holiday weekend — despite not being able to call for back-up because of a jammed radio.
What makes ordinary people do such extraordinary things — especially when there is nothing “in it” for them?
Are these incidents mere coincidence, or are they symptoms of an outbreak of getting involved? Are there other examples of extraordinary heroism in the last several months? If so, why now? Is it significant that these examples, except in the case of the volunteer deputy, involved a group of diverse people coming together as one?
An enterprising reporter might peel off the layers of these stories to see if there is a common core — and, if there is, ask experts to put this core into perspective.
When things go wrong, newsrooms spend a lot of time dissecting what happened — and rightly so. But the opposite also should be true, since we learn both from our failures and our successes.
Perhaps journalists worry that these feel-good stories come off as trite and pandering. This doesn't have to be their fate. Instead, they could spark intelligent, nuanced conversations that move us closer to understanding yet another question: What makes us tick?
Sandi Dolbee is the former religion and ethics editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for her beat coverage, she also is a two-time recipient of Religion Reporter of the Year, the Religion Newswriters Association's top award. She is a past president of the RNA, which represents reporters who cover religion in the secular media, and has received fellowships to study religion and ethics issues at USC, the University of Maryland, New York University and the University of Cambridge in England.