There was a time, not long ago, when readers took little responsibility for the news fed to them each morning.
All of that was laid at the feet of editors. Sure, a slight bump in circulation on a particular day might be tied to the popularity of a particular story on page 1, but for the most part, editors and newsroom directors were left to their own judgment when it came to content and story placement.
All the while, we in the media were barraged with complaints about those very decisions.
It’s all sensational news on the front page, you would righteously argue.
Why do you have to put tragic car crashes on the front page? You would ask with disgust.
Who cares about the latest attention-grabbing escapade of an off-track celebrity or politician? You would scold.
Well who knew? It turns out you do, and you prove it with every little click of your mouse or tap on your smartphone.
The number one viewed story in 2013 on the USA Today website?
It had nothing to do with the new Pope, the death of Nelson Mandela, the civil war in Syria or the U.S. government shutdown.
It was the tragic death of the son of the Minnesota Vikings’ star running back Adrian Peterson.
Second was the manhunt in Boston for the marathon bombing suspect, third was the shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard, fourth was the crash of flight 214 in San Francisco, fifth was Miley Cyrus’ twerking performance at MTV’s Music Video Awards, sixth was the death of Glee star Cory Monteith, seventh was the suicide of a student wrongly tied to the Boston bombings, eighth was the birth of Kim Kardashian’s baby, ninth was the death of celebrity Paul Walker and 10th was Miley Cyrus smoking a joint on stage.
Viewers of Yahoo were a bit more respectable, as Mandela, the Pope and the North Korean missile crisis at least made the top 10, but the most viewed story was the trial of Jodi Arias, accused of brutally murdering her ex-boyfriend in Arizona. Paula Deen’s travails came in at number 10.
Readers of the BDN were most interested in a South Portland doctor who stopped accepting insurance and opted to post his prices online.
That was an interesting showing, but murder and mayhem still served to fill out the majority of the top 13 of 2013. The death of 15-year-old Nichole Cable, the death of a motorcycle racer at the former Loring Air Force Base, the pedestrian struck near Main Avenue and dragged to the Airport Mall, the murders in Oakfield, a mysterious beast in the Maine woods and the two women who died when they accidentally drove into the ocean in Roque Bluffs were all among the top stories.
It’s OK, of course. There is nothing to be ashamed of — well, perhaps there is for USA Today readers — that’s simply embarrassing. But for the most part, you all are simply proving what those in the business have known for decades.
Tragedies and bad behavior are what a good many of you want to read and hear about even if you don’t want to admit it and even if you wag your fingers at us for providing it to you.
The only difference today is that technology allows us to prove it to you.
Wise and dignified psychologists ponder and theorize about what drives humans to seek out news of dramatic and negative events. Some experts say our brains evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment where anything novel or dramatic had to be attended to immediately for survival and therefore today we feel compelled to inform ourselves of the tragedies around us.
According to a report in Psychology Today, humans tend to care more about the threat of bad things than we do about the prospect of good things, and our negative “tripwires” are more sensitive than our positive ones.
Or we could just be nosy or even a bit morbid.
We may delight in watching the famous or infamous behave badly because it makes the rest of us seem just a bit less bad.
Whatever the reason, deep or superficial, it is what it is and what it has been.
What you read, tap and click is what you will continue to get. Pure economics dictates that … and perhaps just a bit of the responsibility for what you see and what you hear is yours.
You can reach Renee Ordway at firstname.lastname@example.org.