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Moment that mattered: The Chilean miners are rescued

“The news media can have a profound psychological impact on the public, although the impact of a single story can be hard to identify – it’s more about the way it relates back to other stories. Feelgood stories are like sports victories in that they create a brief euphoria, but unless viewers or readers have personal involvement in the outcome it can be quickly snuffed out by the next story.

In the case of the Chilean miners, the psychological concept is known as ‘parasocial interaction’ – we develop relationships with people in the news, especially if we can identify with them, and get involved in their emotional reactions. Viewers imagined how they would respond if their husbands/friends/fathers were trapped and empathised with the relatives and friends waiting above.

A key feature of the Chilean miners story was the way it unfolded over several weeks. This is usually the prerequisite for a big story, because – as we know – most media is generated from other media, so it gives time for the story
to spread across the media landscape and still be ‘active’ because the plot is still developing. James Bulger and Madeleine McCann, and, more recently, the Joanna Yeates murder, are examples of running stories that hook in more and more media as they unfold.

Mining accidents usually get no more than a small entry in the broadsheet newspapers. I suspect the location was partly to do with it. Chile barely features in the media other than stories relating to the Pinochet legacy, so it was a bit exotic, rather than a US location or somewhere restricted like China. But the main reason it caught the public’s imagination is the length of time involved – most mining disasters are quite short-lived (explosions, floods, etc) and don’t have the scope to be slowly unfolding news stories.

Personally speaking, I didn’t find the story that interesting. Perhaps I simply don’t identify with the Chilean mining community. Maybe if it had been a bunch of lecturers trapped in a collapsed university building…”

Dr. David Giles is the author of ‘Media Psychology’ (Routledge, 2003) and is a Reader in Media Psychology at the University of Winchester.

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