Tragedy Porn

If it bleeds, it reads. That’s been the rule for a long time. It seems like the morbid appeal of tales of mishap and catastrophe is hardwired, just like interest in the erotic. In both cases, demand has been met by a supply historically constrained by the technological limitations of media and the speed of information. Blue film houses, adult bookstores, and the like peddled NSFW content to paying customers eager to blow off – ahem – some steam. Tawdry tales of disaster and malfeasance were hawked on street corners, tall letters boldly exclaiming the horrors of the previous day, though the news from correspondents further afield took a bit longer to arrive. The picture I’m trying to paint here may be an artificially quaint and sepia-toned conception of the past, a simpler time when mid-Atlantic-accented newsmen recounted events between strained pulls off the sponsoring brand of cigarette, but that quaintness feels alright. Nostalgia feels safe.

Things change, though, when this sought-after content becomes ubiquitous, freely accessible, delivered in high definition and impeccable fidelity, on the fly and always-on. It becomes more captivating, engrossing, and banal. Though the content might come harder and faster, and the reporter’s takes have become hotter and/or fresher, it’s still basically the same thing every time. Exciting and tantalizing as it may be, it also feels mechanical / rehearsed and often more than a little exploitative. Content creators’ efforts to help the end-user experience it live, in the heat of the moment from their POV may fall flat because, of course, you can’t really feel anything when you’re watching it all through a screen.

So why don’t we call news coverage of terrorist attacks, mass shootings and other human awfulness exactly what it is: tragedy porn. A lot of people get off by playing voyeur to the worst day of other people’s lives. I do not see what one stands to gain by seeing in exquisite and sanitized detail just how bad we can be to one another other than some prurient satisfaction of an appetite for mayhem and misery.

Don’t get me wrong. This kind of news coverage scratches an itch for me too. You bet your keister that I fire up cable news  and/or open two tabs – one to the relevant news subreddit and another to Twitter – to binge at a multimedia buffet of fear and sadness. And then when I’ve had my fill I look at my screen feel guilty and somewhat ashamed. “Oh my god, what am I watching?”

Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

1 thought on “Tragedy Porn”

  1. One reason besides some fetishization might be to be informed. News makes the darker world outside of our immediate frame of reference brighter. I’d argue there is a fundamental comfort in simply knowing. We want to build a world view with consistency, reliability. Knowledge facilitates that so why wouldn’t we participate in the news/news consumption? Good or tragic?

    P.S. <3 blogs

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