Pointlessly imagining the progression of societal change.
Many vocations have a “catch phrase”. Not necessarily a motto or company policy, but an ad hoc subtitle that bluntly captures the essence of the field.
In journalism, that phrase is, “if it bleeds, it leads.”
Becoming a gumshoe reporter was once an exciting career prospect: finding leads, holding clandestine meetings to siphon details from secret sources, compiling research into captivating prose, getting a byline and, who knows, maybe a date with Superman? Heck yeah, journalism is where it’s at.
Through it all, the journalist was aware of the catch phrase, looming. Regardless of heart, dedication, worthiness or any number of factors, the coveted front page would always go to the train derailment, over the successful public school fundraiser that brought in enough money to build a new library. If it bleeds, it leads.
Why? Supply and demand. Human nature. Money.
A combination of digital revolution (and diminishing returns on traditional journalism) and huge wave of aging baby boomers, made health care an appealing career choice. For those transitioning to an industry in a growth cycle, from a lab tech to a triage nurse to an ER doctor to a surgeon, the old idea of, “if it bleeds it leads” has maintained its relevance. Those same professionals will retain their literary skill, the gift of gab, an innate inquisitive nature, the desire to be a storyteller and the ability to see things from different perspectives. They also have bills to pay. Health Care is a profitable industry, journalism… not so much.
Then, change. Again.
The comfort level of the everyday internet user has increased and the mobile convenience makes the world smaller and more accessible than ever. The idea has surfaced that certain social media posts would make a great blog. A blog attracts a few subscribers and then a following. The cream, as they say, rises to the top, via consistency, quality and content. The odd hours of the sterile hospital seem less appealing than the ease of typing from the couch and the stream of positive feedback feeds that deep-seated need for validation.
Time to monetize.
The new measure of success is drawn from data on likes, clicks and shares. Collecting evidence of a virus, so that it could be eradicated, was once a primary ambition. Now, the goal is for something, anything, to go viral and with it, the possibility of exposure, increased ad revenue and justification.
The quality of competing content is low, which sets the bar. With few sources and limited new information, filling in the blanks with an educated guess becomes easier, more accepted. No one really follows up. The voices of those noticing discrepancies are drowned out by the frenzied shrieks of the agreeables, who now feel a justification of their own, thanks to a leading headline. The attention span is negligible, so the headline is everything. If it bleeds, it leads. Welcome to the new age of journalism.
The bills are paid, the couch is warm, all is right with the world… as long as some part of the world is suffering. If things stay quiet, grab a spoon and start stirring. Don’t waste time looking around for where you put your integrity, someone’s bleeding! Go!
This tail-chasing, wag-the-dog rut is currently our norm, rather than the ethically elevated, Pulitzer-worthy aspirations of the past. Optimistic dreamers become cogs, out of necessity. Cogs look for a way to stop the grind. Journalism was once an opportunity for expression and exposure, to inform and empower. It was becoming obsolete, until the opportunity arose to repackage it and sell it to the public. Sensationalized stories, clickbait headlines, fake news, typed up lies… It’s all profitable and we’re all bleeding.