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?

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reviewing the Reviewers: An Analysis of Book and Movie Reviews

For a book or movie review to have any credibility, there has to be some balance. In other words, no review should be completely negative or positive. Even if the reviewer absolutely loves what he is reviewing, there must be some criticism, and some call for improvement. Otherwise, the review is tacitly claiming that the book, movie, television show, or anything else that is being reviewed is flawless.

On the other hand, a sneering, lopsided attack is rarely warranted and is usually an excuse for the reviewer to spew some venom and show off how clever he thinks he is.

Unfortunately, the state of reviewing today would lead you to believe that there is an awful lot of perfection out there. Unwarranted praise, low standards, and an unwillingness or inability to thoroughly critique are some of the main problems. Why is this so?

First, there are an awful lot of people out there--mainly online--who have no idea what they are talking or writing about. They have basic emotional responses to what they read and see. Without any knowledge of character development, narrative, or any other aspect of writing or film-making, they simply have nothing worth saying. Their comments are no different than a 12 year-old's description of a movie. When you can't articulate exactly why you have an opinion on something, your comments lose credibility.

Second, numerous reviewers offer up their views as a brazen quid pro quo. They may be getting paid to shamelessly provide a favourable review. Or they simply review positively because they want to maintain access to those who give interviews, provide admission to various junkets, or otherwise make the life of a professional reviewer worthwhile. If those individuals are writing for high-profile media outlets, their opinions can influence others.

Third, as time goes by, there are fewer opportunities for paid reviews in the world of newspapers and magazines. The demise of Kirkus Reviews is another example of that. When reviewers are paid for their time to write a well-researched review backed up with relevant and insightful comments, the quality is generally better.

Finally, there is no accounting for taste. It is hard to fathom the rubbish that is embraced by so many people. This is not so much an indication of the lack of good reviewers as the fact that numerous individuals simply have different standards, and like different things.

The average length of reviews must surely be taking a hit as well. Pithy reviews that are hardly more than a synopsis and a rating are becoming the norm. But all is not lost. Though the amount of worthless garbage on the internet is unlimited, the overall availability of good information on books and movies continues to increase.

In the online world, some of the best and most thorough reviews can be found on Unfortunately, like a microcosm of the vast online universe, to find those reviews, you will have to wade through a lot of dross. Disingenuous tripe that has been planted by those associated with the work that is being reviewed is also a problem.

One of the best high-profile professional movie reviewers remains Roger Ebert. The most well-known and "successful" person in any field, especially one in which writing is the medium, rarely is the most thorough, knowledgeable, and entertaining. Ebert is an exception. He still makes the effort to provide reviews that are entertaining in their own right, and often extrapolates and riffs off the themes in the movie he is reviewing. And if you're a regular reader of Ebert, you are sure to read references to other movies, books, and even great music related to whichever film is the focus of the review.