Ignoring the rest of the story

If it bleeds, it leads. That’s the maxim from the heyday of daily newspapers. Desperate for any edge over the other guy, big city papers would go for the gore wherever possible, on the theory that the more shocking it was, the better sales would be.

No doubt there’s something to it and it continues, one way or another. With all the competition for people’s attention out there, how do you get an edge? Well, the ghastly, the gory, the bizarre and the ridiculous are a pretty safe bet. Tears are right up there too, and if you are in television or radio, that’s what you are after.

Case in point: Mayor Tyler Warman of Slave Lake is having fun lately telling a story about a Toronto Star reporter who was having a heck of a time finding an unhappy person in Slave Lake. She apparently confessed this to him in a candid moment during an interview. Under pressure from her boss to find panicky, tearful evacuees, all she came across were smiles.

‘This must be the happiest town in the country!’ she exclaimed, perhaps a bit exasperated by the lack of tears or panic.

Good news for us; bad news for her, because that’s the last thing her editor wants to hear. One can imagine a J. Jonah Jameson type, chomping his cigar and hollering: ‘Parker! I want blood! I want tears! Don’t give me any of that happiness crap! It doesn’t sell!’

This – or some version of it – is actually going on. It’s easy enough to see how we get a skewed view of the world, with the emphasis so much on reporting the bizarre and the extreme.

This of course was reminiscnt of May 15, 2011, when Slave Lake was on fire and Edmonton news media types were flooding the town. One of them, packing a camera on his shoulder and conducting his own interviews, approached a couple walking back to the Cornerstone after taking a look at the government centre and library in flames. It was a grim scenario and it really did look at that point as if the whole town would be wiped out.

‘Do you know if your house is gone?’ he asked.

‘We think it probably is,’ said the woman, with what seemed commendable composure.

‘Don’t you feel like crying?’ he asked, obviously wishing she would. ‘I feel like crying!’

It was annoying, but you can’t really hold it against him. He was under the same sort of pressure from his higher ups to find panicky, tearful people to put on the 10 o’clock news. People handling the situation calmly he wasn’t interested in. Next!

He would have been happier with the person who said later that ‘everybody’ in the Cornerstone lot thought they were going to die. Like hell they did. But it’s no surprise to learn somebody was reacting that way. There are alarmists among us. They tend to believe the world (or maybe just the neighbourhood) is going to hell in a handbasket.

That sort of extremism should be resisted. Any sort of extremism, really, whether it comes to us from the Toronto Star, or from government or from the next-door neighbour.

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