Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Robert Pickton and the Limits of Morbid Curiosity

the screamIf you think that newspapers that previously prided themselves on reporting only serious news now include more gossip and seediness in their pages, you're right.

Most major newspapers, and especially their online editions, now carry columnists who would have only been able to make a living in the most shameless tabloids a few years ago. No argument is too specious, no inflammatory statement too outrageous, and no lack of supporting evidence problematic for a good portion of columnists in the dwindling world of today's newspapers.

Of course, the broadsheets still make sure to employ more serious journalists as well. But more and more, the sneering, smug, demagogic spewers of poorly written, disingenuous tripe are taking up greater space on newspaper pages.

The more base and simplistic the better. All the easier for the average person to get their head around.

But wait, haven't newspapers always been devoted to the most salacious, bloody, sensationalistic stories possible? Yes, but as with all things in life, it's all about degrees. In the past, you could count on certain publications having standards to which they would adhere. The tabloid sleaze was left to the tabloids. All that seems to be changing.

This steady decline of the quality of both content and writing in today's newspapers is due to numerous reasons. But the one that stands out more than any other is the ease with which editors at newspapers can now determine which stories are most popular. Readers click on the stories that appeal to them most, and the number of clicks quickly confirms that sleaze, degradation, and anything that allows us to rank ourselves against others, are the determiners of whether people are interested in a story.

So you really can't blame the move towards more tripe in newspapers.

Newspaper Bloggers

Most online and print newspapers now employ numerous bloggers. Yet anytime a blogger not employed by the newspaper is mentioned, either as someone who originally broke a story or as part of the story itself, sneering condescension inevitably comes through. Instead of rising above this generalization, many newspapers seem determined to emulate and perpetuate it.

Regardless of whether you label someone a blogger or not, they are still writing, and their work still appears under the banner of the newspaper. And so in a kind of gutless easy out for printing absolutely anything, there often seems to be no standards for this breed of newspaper writer.

But if you think that the move towards a more lurid type of storytelling in newspapers means that the most vile and repugnant stories are always the most popular, then you would be wrong.

When Horror Trumps Intrigue

The sick tale of serial killer Robert Pickton confirms that readers actually do have limits to how much they can stomach. When news broke about the pig farmer who may have slaughtered more than 60 women and then disposed of their bodies in the most repellent ways possible, editors at various newspapers must have thought that they had the story of the decade.

But after the initial explosion of publicity and interest wore off, an interesting thing happened. People stopped clicking on stories about the Pickton trial. Sure, there were still a significant number of people who were interested and had a strong enough stomach to check out the details. But the numbers just didn't reach a level that might have been expected when the story first broke.

Something so base, vile, and sickening that it makes most people want to curl up and convulse at the absolute horror of it all. Nothing redeeming, no seed of hope that there is anything good in the world. No compelling story-lines, and no inkling of humanity.

However, the women who were killed by Pickton make up some of the most heartbreaking, haunting and desperate tales imaginable. But most people in society are not concerned with the marginalized. Not while the hardest done by are living, and certainly not when they have passed from the world after short, brutal lives. Even less likely are people to care about them when the possibility for experiencing some collective guilt about their deaths is very real.

So the trial of the most notorious and prolific serial killer in Canadian history was poorly attended by journalists, and ignored by many in the public. Had Pickton not been the complete vile piece of filth that he is, or if the women murdered had come from middle or upper class neighbourhoods, the interest would have been much higher. But on a more basic level, the sick, horrific details were just too much for most people to handle. Who can blame anyone for not wanting the imagery from that house of horrors to be burned in their brains?

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