Is That a Thing?

October 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

On Sunday, both New York tabloids put the same story on page one – the stabbing death of a woman and four children in their apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Early word from the police was that “it’s looking a domestic violence case.” Apparently the killer knew the victims and may have been a relative. 

What caught my attention was the “related” story that the Daily News linked to on its website version of the story. What kind of story might be related? A story about the family? about difficulties faced by Chinese immigrants or conflicts within an immigrant community? about mental illness and violence? about ethnic and demographic changes in Sunset Park?  No. None of the above.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The story the Daily News chose as “related” concerns the “Green Gang goon who was caught on video slugging a female New England Patriots fan in the face after the Jets’ upset victory” a week earlier. It turns out that in a fight twenty years ago, when he was 17, he fatally stabbed another kid.  He served three years. 

How are these two stories related? There is no connection between the two killers or their victims. The incidents are separated by two decades.  The motives and circumstances are entirely different.  If the Jets fan had not been caught on camera punching the female Patriots fan, no journalist following the Sunday killing would have dug up information on this crime of twenty years ago in an attempt to elaborate on the Sunset Park killings.  Knowing about that “related” crime gives us no better understanding of Sunday’s stabbing. 

Instead, the two stories are related by a common theme – they are both about killing where the weapon is a knife.  The Daily News seems to be taking a page from Amazon’s marketing strategy. “Readers who liked this story also liked . . .”  or Netflix recommendations. (I wonder what the stabbing-death-story demographic is.)  Television news often groups stories thematically. A story about a commercial arson in one part of town will be followed by a story about an accidental fire in a house in a distant neighborhood. The circumstances, location, and causes of the two fires are completely different, and if the big fire had not occurred, that house fire might not have been newsworthy.  But that night, it fit with the fire theme.

Mark Fishman wrote about this thematic organization of TV news in his 1978 article “Crime Waves as Ideology.”  We’re so used to it that when we watch the local news at eleven, we barely notice it.  Now, thanks to hyperlinks, online news can do the same thematic grouping.  A possible consequence that Fishman pointed out is that the news directors can unwittingly create media crime waves – sudden increases in the number of stories while the the actual number of crimes remains unchanged.  Once the theme is established, it’s just a matter of combing the city or the entire country for incidents that fit.

Here is another screen from the Daily News website.

A stabbing at the University of Indiana. The related stories are a stabbing death of a teacher in Long Beach, California and of a teacher in a Texas high school.

So, students stabbing people at schools – is that a thing? Probably not, but it is a news theme.

1 comment:

Simply Aaron said...

Content curation along with big data advertizing is done fairly haphazardly, especially on the web. It can be harmless or even annoying, but to me, I find that more than anything it reenforces people's biases and prejudices. After a controversial "incident" you will get five or ten similar stories that never would have seen the light of day were it not for the exceptional incident. Without realizing it you are now priming people to think that Jets fans are bloodthirsty killers, or that a certain culture/race is not so good. We end up seeing certain themes at statistically higher rate than they appear in the wild, which gives people a skewed view of reality.

Because they choose to use search cookies and google to advertise stories, instead of doing actual journalism to get us to stay on their site longer, they are inadvertently contributing to so many damaging mindsets in this country, not the least of which are racism and partisan politics.