The exception that proves the rule: sometimes, one remarkable story is enough

August 29, 2016 - 6:21 pm
When a very determined woman, with help from a legal aid attorney and a social worker, finally proves that she is owed $100,000 in back Social Security payments, the story "went viral." What can we learn from this exception to one of the standard rules of attracting media coverage?

Old sayings exist for a reason. Last week, the adage “there’s an exception to every rule” proved true.

We are often asked whether a story of one person helped by civil legal aid is newsworthy for a national media outlet. As a rule, the answer is no. Most of the time individual success stories do not intrigue national reporters.

Yet, last week one of the most shared stories in the country was about Wanda Witter, an 80-year-old homeless woman who – with perseverance and the help of Legal Counsel for the Elderly – recovered $100,000 from the Social Security Administration.

Why did this individual story get covered?

One reason is, media outlets need stories that drive online traffic. Stories that “go viral” tend to be sensational, spurring outrage or inspiration. And they are easy to understand. That’s why even the most respected news outlets use headlines like:

  • A C-SPAN caller asked a black guest how to stop being prejudiced. Here’s how she responded
  • Why I refuse to send people to jail for failure to pay fines
  • Restaurant gives ex-offenders a recipe for success

Another way Ms. Witter’s story differs from a “regular” news item: it was first reported by a columnist. Every major newspaper in America has at least one columnist who looks for inspiring stories that will resonate in their community. Ms. Witter’s story fits one of the most established Western story-structures: the fairy tale. Our hero has a clear goal. She faces multiple barriers. For years she demands her rights even though nobody believes her. A defined villain stands in her way. In the end (with the help of civil legal aid), fairness and justice prevail.

Will your standard beat reporter write a piece like this? No. That’s why it is critical to remember the most important rule of pitching: know to whom you’re pitching.

The type of story you have must match with a reporter or columnist who regularly writes about that issue. Research what they cover. Understand what interests them. Because a reporter’s responsibility is to the outlet’s readers, think about what those readers might find interesting, new or different. And, be prepared to explain why now is the time to write about it.

Put another way, when you pitch anybody in the media, always try to put yourself in their shoes. Match what you can offer with what they need. That is one rule to which there is no exception.

Organizations mentioned/involved: Legal Counsel for the Elderly (LCE) (DC)
Geographic coverage: District of Columbia, NATIONAL
Tags: Social Security Benefits