UH Communications Professor Explains the Appeal of Feel-Good Viral News Stories

Last week, a raccoon clawed its way up a skyscraper and into our hearts

Raccoon skyscraper photo by: Evan Frost/MPR News Assistant Professor Erica Ciszek

They’re best known for eating your garbage, carrying rabies, and creeping around mischievously in the dead of night. But one raccoon defied all stereotypes last week, embarking on a feat of daring that vaulted her to international stardom. Millions of social-media users watched in real time as a raccoon in Saint Paul, Minnesota went on a death-defying vertical climb all the way to the top of the 25-story UBS Plaza building, which houses Minnesota Public Radio. Throughout the nearly 12-hour ordeal, the hashtag #MPRraccoon was among the top trending topics on Twitter.

The story was yet another viral phenomenon that would not have been possible before the rise of social media. Assistant Professor Erica Ciszek, an expert in digital communications in the UH Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, believes stories like these capture so many hearts because they allow us to access “feel-good emotions” and “temporarily tune out our reality.”

After maintenance workers spotted the raccoon and tried to help it down from a 20-foot ledge, it fled their rescue efforts and began an ascent that would make even Spider-Man blanch. Although there was no guarantee that the raccoon would return to the ground safely, Professor Ciszek believes the potential for a heartwarming conclusion drove interest in the story. “[Events like this] help us connect to a happy-ending story, when much of the other information thrown at us doesn’t suggest a happy ending.”

Indeed, the raccoon’s acrobatic saga (which ended on a positive note with its capture and safe release into nearby woodlands) stands in stark contrast to the contentious, polarizing political news stories that dominate the news cycle. “In the current social and political climate, stories like this one go viral for the soft-news value they offer — stories like this make us feel good,” Professor Ciszek said.

The internet’s most popular viral stories are often about animals — few among us can resist the temptation to look at cute photos or videos of dogs, cats, or other critters during a slow day at work. “Even though raccoons aren’t traditionally considered as cute and cuddly as cats (that originally dominated the viral-video scene online), we want to see the little guy succeed,” Professor Ciszek said.

Despite our numerous attempts, the raccoon could not be reached for comment on this story.