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Q: What does ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ mean?

A:

Basically, if there’s violence, conflict or death involved, it gets top billing. Nowhere is this more true than in television news, which coined the expression, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

That’s mainly because of the visual aspect of TV news that we’ve talked about in previous classes. You can actually see the police tape and red lights circling above the squad cars, the blood-splattered walls, the body bags being rolled out on stretchers. It ropes viewers in and holds their attention, a proverbial train wreck on prime time.

But that doesn’t mean it’s always justified or even ethical. That FOX 5 “Operation Gotcha” segment on prostitution on Long Island we viewed in class was problematic not just because of the police entrapment involved, but because the party that profited the most from the segment was the news channel itself. Is there really a prostitution epidemic? Unlikely. But people tuned in, because the segment promised a scantily clad undercover police officer and men in handcuffs. “Bleeds” doesn’t need to imply actual blood; the blood can be metaphorical.

But if there is real blood involved, even better — from a business perspective. For journalists, though, such an unscrupulous emphasis on violence can pose ethical, and even existential, dilemmas. Next I’ll share a tragic example that involves a young woman’s suicide, so feel free to stop reading here if that subject troubles you. I’ve already answered the substantive aspect of the question, but the example below is worth knowing for anyone studying journalism and its complicated, sometimes unfortunate history.

In 1974, a 29-year-old television reporter named Christine Chubbuck committed suicide in the middle of a news broadcast, in Sarasota, Florida. Her story is dramatized in Antonio Campos’s film, Christine, which was shown at Sundance in 2016. She was deeply depressed, but the manner in which she took her life made a scathing statement about the news media. She planned her death carefully; she purchased a gun expressly for that purpose, learned to use it, and even wrote a note to read on-air immediately before she committed the act.

On July 15th, 1979, she was reporting from the television studio when the schedule called for a segment on a bar fight in town. But the tape jammed, leaving her with air time to fill and what she saw as her ideal moment. Ms. Chubbuck looked squarely into the camera and read what she had written: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first – an attempted suicide.”

She then pulled a gun from behind her desk and shot herself in the temple.

No known recording of the suicide exists, because the only tape capturing it was in the TV studio, and if it is still around, it has likely oxidized to the point of being unwatchable. But people who knew Ms. Chubbuck, or who were there that day in 1974, say they remember her and that day well. One former colleague has noted her excellence as a newswoman, right up to that final broadcast.

It may be morbid, but even in her own suicide note, she maintained her journalistic standards by describing her suicide as “attempted” rather than absolute, for one very simple, and very sad, reason: In the moment that she read that statement aloud, she hadn’t actually done it yet.

Chubbuck’s suicide clearly had to do with much more than her critique of Channel 40’s “policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts” — she was unwell. But her final words still resonate today and should give us all pause when we think about why we’re watching any newscast involving the pain and misfortune of others.

Sometimes such stories are essential, and we must be made aware of them. And sometimes they’re just a spectacle of other people’s misery.