when did American journalists start including story of a "typical person" when describing a trend?

the young, hip and vibrant NY Times journalist Mr. Parrot has just finished writing an article. In it he has uncritically repeated same old same old BS tripe that all the rest of the MSM like to say over and over again and made it all slightly less boring by using the story of one Ms. Nonexistent Q. Figurehead. The differently intelligenced members of the reading audience loved it…

Anyway, so when did this start? New York Times used to regularly publish a link to archived stuff going from the turn of the century - I don’t seem to remember such style being used in those stories. Have they decided that the readers are too dumb to handle abstract concepts and statistical explanations without an illustrative example in some recent past?

The late Harry Reasoner (formerly anchor at ABC and an original reporter on 60 Minutes) wrote in his memoir that he was doing it when he was the news director at a TV station in Minneapolis in the early 50’s. He wasn’t the first to do it, either.

You might also want to read the works of Ernie Pyle, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his columns on World War 2, which were written from the point of view of soldiers in the field, or listen to the recordings of Edward R. Murrow, who once illustrated one of his wartime radio stories on the food shortages in England simply by turning his microphone to broadcast the sound of a dripping mess of shattered canned foods in a shop that had been hit by a bomb during the Battle of Britain.

No, they think people will be more likely to continue reading a story that begins “Minerva Johnston was surprised when she went grocery shopping and found ground beef cost a lot more than she remembered - and it’s because of a harsh winter in Peru,” as opposed to one that begins “The U.S. Cattle Raising Association says the price of ground beef is up 11.5 percent due to a shortage of Peruvian wheatgrass.”

I can’t tell you when journalists started writing like this. I would say that it’s part of a broad general trend toward personalizing the news and ‘news you can use’ type stories. While injecting a “real person” into a story can be a stupid cliche, when it’s used properly it can be a good way of showing how events affect people instead of relying on authoritative-sounding bodies and obsessing over statistics.

There’s actually a standard term for this sort of way of starting a news story - the “Fred Zimmerman lead”:

The name “Fred Zimmerman” was chosen just as an example of the type of name that might be used in this opening to a news story.

It isn’t a matter of intelligence, but one of psychology. People empathize better with specific individuals or situations than we do with groups, trends or numbers. Empathy creates an emotional response and emotional responses sell far more newspapers than information.

To some extent is goes back to that old saying: One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic. Even the most intelligent people are more likely to cry over the death of one friend than a million strangers.

The “Zimmerman lead” should be distinguished from the man on the street reporting that permeates local television news. After a snowstorm, you see video of people shoveling their driveways and the 20-something reporter asking them what they think about the snow. Or the reporter gets a quote from the guy at the airport on the day before Thanksgiving saying “boy, this place is crowded.” That’s just laziness, and I think there’s a lot more of it than I remember seeing 20 years ago.

Finding a personal story to illustrate a larger point is good journalism. Getting an empty quote from a random person that adds nothing to the story is just lazy.