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Funeral Home Blogging

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It's been said about the internet that never have so many had so much to say about which they knew so little.

As I sat in the lounge in Atlanta yesterday trying to read, there was a television on. I was subjected to local news, Entertainment Tonight, and some real-life garbage. It was hours and hours of stuff you'd show a person who was mentally deficient a hundred years ago: innuendo, gossip, people arguing with each other over nothing while thousands watched. The vain in search of the famous.

Maybe people on the internet blab a lot about things they know nothing about, but it certainly didn't start with the internet.

When I was a freelance writer, writing for a weekly and sometimes a daily meant that I'd get to see the TV news crews working more than most people, and I learned that TV operates by a different standard than print. Everybody knows the old saying "if it bleeds, it leads," and it's true: people are inherently interested in death and destruction. I know I am. The daily and weekly I worked for would routinely run car crash pictures on page 1, usually below the fold. Above the fold there was something the editors found more important -- politics, sports, or business news.

We understood sensationalism, sure, and we made money from it, but we always
had some kind of reserve too.

I remember reading the story of an intern who started working with John McLaughlin years ago. (McLaughlin has a show on PBS; one of those political shows where everybody ends up yelling at each other) He remembers that John had absolutely no sense of decorum. He used to record missives to his intern while in the bathroom each morning, with all of the usual background sounds and noises that go with that. The intern was struck with the idea that celebrity on television means a decided lack of modesty, humility, and a greatly deranged view of self importance.

In the newspaper business I saw some of this lack of control when TV crews visited local funeral homes to interview grieving relatives that were part of a major news story. As writers we used to tell each other that there were some things that just weren't worth doing. Somebody else can fuss with their hair and get their makeup just right for the live shot outside of the still warm body and crying relatives.

Were we jealous? Probably a little. But I think we also had a point.

They say that television is educational. Perhaps they're on to something there. When I first started blogging, I did a lot of posts I wouldn't do today. I did a lot of news aggregation, some top-ten-type lists, mostly lighter fare. Gizmodo stuff. I found that I could gain an audience, but as a result today a huge hunk of my traffic comes from people googling for pictures of celebrities.

Write like TV, get treated like TV.

I found that decreasing my television changed my writing style. No longer was I regurgitating pop culture. Instead I was having to synthesize larger themes from past experiences.

Ye gods, it was almost like having to think for myself.

A few months ago in Buffalo, New York, a Dash-8 commuter plane went down losing all hands on board. Like everybody else, I was interested in the event. So I thought it would be good to blog about it. After all, I am a pilot, and although I am no expert I have spent hundreds of hours immersed in aviation safety topics. I knew enough to speculate.

It'd be a cool article. I could get snapshots of the cockpit, talk about airplane performance, weather, time-in-seat. Heck -- it looked like icing incident. Might be neat to speculate on how sometimes even the pros make amateur mistakes.

But then I thought better of it.

Let's assume that I write a wonderful article outlining exactly what went wrong with the flight and explaining all this neat technology stuff. Somebody, somewhere is grieving the loss of their relatives. To them, now I'm the guy standing outside the funeral home doing the standup. And for what? A few thousand lousy readers?

Let's assume I do a bone-headed job of the article. Then, not only am I self-aggrandizing at the expense of suffering and death, I'm getting all the details wrong. I'm insulting the people involved, over-generalizing on the details, making myself into an expert when I am not, and all for those eyeballs.

Sorry, but your eyeballs just aren't that valuable to me.

What I've noticed, however, is that now public forums are full of people acting just like the people they see on TV. Train wreck in Australia? Not only can you get updates by tweet but you can start immediately speculating on what the causes might be. Don't let facts get in your way. Don't let the idea that people might be grieving bother you. You can implicate people, impugn their expertise, trash companies, make light of existing conditions.

It's not just the TV stations outside of funeral homes any more. It's all of us. We don't need the picture of the wreck on the local newspaper: we're already seeing pictures from cell phones.

You want citizen journalism? First comes citizen exploitation of the weak to appease the morbid curiosity of the many.

A famous columnist said ten years ago that one day there will be live suicides on television and people will pay to see them. He was wrong: it was the internet.

The point here isn't to try to moralize or complain about new technology. Hey kids! You can stay on the lawn! New technology is great. I'm as big a gadget freak as anybody. I even plead guilty as anybody to reading this morbid trash. If it bleeds, it leads.

I've just decided not to create it. Not today.

It might be good to pay attention to the things you are tearing up. Someday you
might want to have them back.

2 Comments

Hey Daniel, nice post - I agree and good for you.
K

Thanks Kurt,

I was thinking this article bombed -- after all, it's kind of an anti-popular article. It's much more fun to read about suffering and pain.

I appreciate the comment. It made my day.

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on June 9, 2009 6:41 PM.

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