The word "fear" painted on a concrete wall near an elementary school.

If it Bleeds, It Leads: The Marketing of Trauma

Years ago I recognized that TV news had become primarily entertainment.

For decades, editors have said that “If it Bleeds, It Leads,” meaning that the most traumatic story would lead the newscast (even if it wasn’t the most relevant to viewers). That is all the more true in this age of round-the-clock reporting on TV, online, and social media.

After seeing all of the media attention toward multiple-victim shootings, I was reminded that the media essentially rewards violence, perhaps to the point of encouraging impressionable people to “just do it”:

Those who don’t believe in an afterlife now have a way to be immortalized in this life.

Continuous News Coverage

Andy Warhol famously predicted that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” With the advent of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and continuous news coverage, you can be famous for way longer than 15 minutes if you do something spectacular.

Many in the media seem intent on making these incidents as big a spectacle as possible, churning out phrases like “the worst shooting of its kind in history,” or “the worst grade school shooting” ever. By narrowing their definition with terms like “of its kind” and “grade school” they can say it’s the worst ever. They treat Christmas shoppers and innocent children like sports scores.

Who Should We Remember?

I watched a bit of the Anderson Cooper 360 program the night of the Newtown shootings and must give credit where it’s due. Something like this really is news, so it needs to be reported, but I was relieved to see Anderson Cooper and Soledad O’Brien make a point of not mentioning the shooter’s name or showing his picture. Though we will never forget what happened, the victims are the ones we should remember, not the killer.

This has been increasingly embraced, such as the admonition to Forget Oregon’s Gunman. Remember the Hero Who Charged Straight at Him. Similarly, the three who defeated a gunman on a French train are often mentioned without naming the shooter.

Don’t Dwell on the Trauma

School supplies, including a ruler, pencil, eraser, notebook paper, and an apple.
School supplies and an apple for the teacher

Similarly, we need to remember that children can experience trauma from these events just by seeing them on TV. This is all the more serious if they are exposed to the film loops shown over and over again on news channels. Some children see repeated images of a tsunami wave or children being evacuated from a school and they think there is an unending number of waves and innumerable children are being evacuated. After 9/11, children could be traumatized by believing towers kept falling all day, and our own subconscious is not immune.

The stories our better selves want to hear are stories of the heroes, like the teachers who calmed and protected their charges – and in some cases gave their lives for them.

What Now?

“Do-something disease” is rampant after tragedies like these. Many things are blamed by people across the political and moral spectrum:

  • Ready access to firearms
  • Drugs (whether a given perpetrator used or should have used them)
  • Devaluation of human life
  • Bullying
  • Violence on TV and in movies and video games

Some demand a ban on fully-automatic weapons, not realizing they are already very tightly restricted in America. Others want to ban semi-automatic weapons. The Law of Unintended Consequences observes that when government tries to ban or regulate something, other unanticipated reactions will likely manifest themselves. In China, for example, where firearms are tightly regulated, mass knife attacks make the news.

The bigger question is not about the weapons, but about the recent increase in scale of their abuse. These weapons have been with us for decades; what has changed?

Does the media reward spectacular violence? That seems pretty clear.

Does the media cause violence? Of course not.

What do you think is causing this?

14 thoughts on “If it Bleeds, It Leads: The Marketing of Trauma”

  1. The truth of the problem lies in the home. Every parent says their home is fine but many are in denial. I feed a couple of students peanut butter sandwiches because their parents don’t feed them enough.
    Many parents let their kids do whatever and whenever. Teachers are always blamed but look at this tragedy. These teachers were brave.

    Everyone criticizes society and the media but they watch the shows anyway. I stayed away from all media about this situation because I knew they would sensationalize it.

    1. I appreciate your points Natasha.
      Certainly the media can be a scapegoat the same way that weapons, schools and teachers can be. So many important things do indeed begin at home!

  2. I am convinced the breakdown of the family and society are closely correlated to each other and to spectacular violence as well as the less spectacular but highly destructive kinds — both physical and emotional. For such an “advanced” society it’s amazing how quickly we collectively buy cheap arguments because they sound about right for some reason we can’t explain well, rejecting sound challenges in the spirit of agreeing to disagree, closing our minds and abandoning the scientific method in the process. Blaming inanimate weapons (and becoming willing to abandon freedom to magically solve the problem as if there could never be any unintended consequences there) is an example.

    The piece at the address below sums up the root cause like this: “The professional literature of criminology is surprisingly consistent on the real root causes of violent crime: the breakdown of the family and community stability. The sequence has its deepest roots in the absence of stable marriage.”

    1. I appreciate the politically-incorrect response Larry. We are such easy targets for legislative quick fixes, often preferring to “do something” rather than examine cause and effect. Hopefully we won’t further injure ourselves by acting on such knee-jerk reactions.

  3. Anne Marie Murphy Act.

    Reporters should not have been allowed to interview those poor
    children in Newtown, CT. They were truly hounding them with questions.
    What we the people are suggesting is a way to protect children from
    over zealous reporters. No child should be allowed to have contact
    with a reporter with in 48 hours after such an event. This will allow
    time for reflection and recovery for the victims.

    We the people would like to state this petition isn’t to limit the
    freedom of speech or the freedom of the press we hold so dearly. This
    petition is to protect its integrity, so as to not surrender our
    principles of right and wrong for personal gain.

    1. I’m reminded of those blurbs at the end of a movie reminding us that “No animal was harmed in the production of this movie…”. Clearly there is no such protection for children’s hearts and minds in the production of TV news.

      The fact that their parents are present during the interview doesn’t change the fact that the child is being asked to relive a traumatic event, primarily for entertainment value. I would hope that we change the channel when we see this, and perhaps let the producers and advertisers for those programs know why we did so.

    2. This shouldn’t be too hard to enact. For many years, media has had an unwritten rule to not report a suicide unless it had some element of public interest (such as a political figure or celebrity). This common sense guideline prevented those seeking attention from using suicide as a tragic means to an end. Certainly the media could agree—even without legislation—that children aren’t capable of adding any insight to a horrible situation and leave them out.

      (Thanks, Steve, for sharing this link in #dadchat tonight.)

      1. Thanks Stephen. Congress seems to spend most of their time on feel-good legislation these days, so you’d certainly think something protecting children from media harassment would be easy to pass.

        1. Good points raised. Parents should be concerned about the impact on kids with the mainstream news as a source of information for kids. Parents have the choice of moving to online news stories and sheltering kids. And, if they would like to get their kids to be well informed, use resources purpose built for kids. If your kids like online news videos and articles – try If looking for magazines and not news, try digital magazines like and if looking for books – try a TFK subscription.

    3. This is healthy as there is a built in protective mechanism to forget the event. After 48 hours, this has a chance to have kicked in.

  4. This is so true! Some news work on getting the biggest story of horror and show it over and over again, and even capitalize on it during commercial ads to watch their news, repeating tragedies over and over again, just to say, “If you want the best stories, come to this channel’s news!” I think that doesn’t help victims of crimes, nor those who have to watch the same thing, especially children.

    Nobody seems to not want to post pictures of the bad guys. Everyone wants to see them, yet we remember the bad guys, not the victims so much because of news giving them so much more coverage. Not that I’m okay with them interviewing victims before victims have had a chance to cope with the tragedy. News corporations want the gory so that they can sell news and get more awards, viewers, etc. It’s kind of sick if you ask me. Yes, people want to know what happened, but when they focus on the suspect for hours, even days, non-stop, they’re not allowing victims and those who witness it, even through watching TV news, a chance to cope, but, they’re also sensationalizing the tragedy for their own reward and gain, sensationalizing the suspects for their own curiosity, and they’re not thinking at all about how their actions affect the community as a whole, as well as the victims of the crimes, or other tragedies, like the tsunami.

    Yes, it’s good to know what’s going on, but to have the news shoved down your throats every second of every day, for days or weeks, about the same thing, that’s just news being selfish and competitive, never really considering that some need to cope without the constant reminders or news reporters in their faces, before they can even get out of shock.

    People look for knee-jerk decisions… banning guns, etc. I used to support bans on certain guns. My mom called me and asked me if I’d like to volunteer with her for some program that is trying to ban guns or demand background checks. While I agree something needs to be done, politics is usually the way to end all problem solving. Have you seen how childish our so-called leaders have been? Shutting down government and all, without a care, food on their table, and not to forget to mention, a really nice paycheck. We reward politicians, too, for never doing anything.

    All in all, the hardest to do is actually work on mental health treatments. Many times they are ineffective and very costly. And, that’s not the sexy bill that gets passed! We need to do something, BUT, reacting without thinking things through is what people often do after a tragedy. Banning guns won’t solve the problem. Banning the news might.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.