In the minutes after Fox News accidentally aired footage of a carjacking suspect’s suicide last Friday—“That didn’t belong on TV,” anchor Shepard Smith said after a hasty commercial break—media outlets across the Internet seized the video as their own. Buzzfeed posted a clip, which YouTube has since removed and reinstated multiple times. Gawker thoughtfully warned readers to “watch at your own risk” before posting its unedited cut. Mediaite quickly followed suit.
Admittedly, there is a considerable grey area in deciding what makes news and when a suicide qualifies. But it’s hard to see much news value in the bloodbath of gleeful tweets and social shares that followed Friday’s video. I should know. Five years ago, just before I started packing to go to j-School, my godfather’s suicide became a media spectacle in our hometown of Buffalo, NY.
It was all over local television, plus three stories and a column in the Buffalo News. I remember listening to my coworkers, at an Old Navy in Niagara Falls, gossip about my godfather’s death as they folded shirts. “Did you see the last story?” “Fucking weird, right?”
I came to understand that nothing entertains like death—and that when we talk about media and suicide, we’re usually talking about entertainment.
Suicides rarely rise to the level of “news”; that’s why we rarely cover them. The San Francisco Chronicle writes about few of the people who die jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge each year. In New York, we seldom read about the 475 people who walk off roofs or subway platforms every year. These stories, at their heart, don’t inform us of anything but someone else’s private despair, a despair to which neither journalists nor readers can stake any legitimate claim.
There are always exceptions, of course. Thoughtful coverage of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in 2010, turned national attention to cyberbullying and LGBT issues. And after US Army Pvt. Danny Chen committed suicide in Afghanistan, investigations unearthed unsettling reports of military hazing.
But as soon as we lose sight of the difference between news and spectacle, we step on shaky ground. Take the case of New York Times financial editor Allen Myerson, who in 2002 jumped from the roof of the Times’s building to his death. It wasn’t part of some greater cluster or trend, had no political or cultural implications, and informed no one about their lives or the greater world. Times editor Patrick J. Lyons, in explaining why the suicide stayed out of the paper, said that it played only “to the basest gutter strain of morbid curiosity.” But the New York Post ran a colorful play-by-play, and New York Magazine dedicated an astounding 8,000 words to the details of Myerson’s financial and marital problems. They were sexy, dramatic, almost like a Law & Order episode. And like a Law & Order episode, those stories entertained us. But they did not service some greater journalistic truth. They were not, in a word, “news.”
After my godfather died, there were stories in the paper. While he was not a public figure, his suicide happened in a public place; I understand the news stories, though they wounded my family. I do not understand what came after, when The Buffalo News ran a lengthy expose into his marriage and finances.
Likewise, the Fox suicide video said quite a bit about the state of broadcast media and tape delays and other issues we should discuss. But the actual frame of a man’s death, the moment when he pulls the trigger and falls to the ground? I don’t need to understand the exact way a body crumples to know that Fox messed up. That’s mayhem porn.
But that’s a hard pill for news outlets to swallow, especially digital news organization, which live and die by pageviews. In his explanation of Gawker’s decision to post the Fox suicide video, Hamilton Nolan offers a frightening new definition of news value: “When we heard that Fox News had aired a suicide, what was the first thing we all did? Search on the Internet for the clip. The clip is news.”
Morbid curiosity is now enough to elevate a story from the gutter to the level of “news.” Nolan’s justification boils down to the belief that people should have the video because they want it, a rationale echoed by Slate’s Farhad Manjoo on Twitter. “Posting stuff people are talking about is what [Buzzfeed] does. This is their job,” he said. But people sometimes want things they shouldn’t have, an obvious truth reflected in the mere existence of things like editors and editorial judgment and ethics classes in j-school. There’s a reason you don’t see pornography on news sites, despite the fact that Google search volume for “porn” eclipsed search volume for “news” sometime around June 2008. Though people want porn, editors don’t believe it’s the media’s place to give it to them. And when it comes to snuff videos, another form of entertainment, most media outlets make the same choice.