The life cycle of a tragic news story runs like this now: It’s a creature first rumoured to exist, dismissed as mythological, then glimpsed on Twitter.
Tracked and captured a day later by a news organization, it will be photographed, documented, grisly aspects of its contents analyzed under a microscope, before the findings are published in a paper, and the story is hashtagged and released quickly back onto the Internet.
Three days later, the wild news story will have migrated to Facebook, where people will gawp at it and try to feed it with some personal connection from the back of the fridge. They’ll Google its care, show pictures of it to their friends – often adding something along the lines of “Why isn’t the media covering this!?!” as though the sad news story they had just placed in the lined box of their Facebook page had been spawned on FarmVille.
Some people will post admonishments of friends who are still paying attention to cat videos and other e-phemera when they ought to be devoting the acreage of their Facebook pages to providing sanctuary to the sad news story.
Over in the badlands of Reddit, attempts will be made to pair the sad news story with other news stories to create a more exotic, or at least larger, news story. Reams of typed resources will be used to this end, but the sad news story will generally refuse to mate with the other proffered news stories. A sad news story, being as it is a collection of facts, is apparently indifferent to its own extinction, content to die out rather than face some preposterous coupling. (Benghazi is the panda bear of sad news stories.)
Five days into its life, a plea will be made for action on behalf of the sad story. Facebook friends will be implored to post a status declaring support for the good in the story, or to type their names on an online petition demanding that the bad situation be righted; almost a week into the life of a sad news story, a slew of posts and tweets will then appear decrying the pointlessness of these efforts. This milestone in the life of a sad news story is accompanied by thought pieces on the futility of “hashtag activism,” which, we’ll be sternly reminded, is naive and even dangerous.
One would think, from the tone of these pieces, that spelling Nigeria had the same risks or consequences as going to Nigeria. Sadly, the sincerely piqued interest in a region or a cause a sad news story can bring is often responded to with smug disdain – not taken as point of departure from which much can be learned and somethings can even be changed.
A kind of hipsterish compassion takes over. “I liked the children of Nigeria’s first album. I saw them in Abuja. I cared about Nigeria before it was cool, spare me your greatest hits of African tragedy album.”
The situation’s too complex to be summed up in a tweet people will tweet. Why do you care now? Why didn’t you care before? The deadline was March. You won’t care next week – that’s the script for the seventh day in the life of a tragic news story.
It’s a complaint as old as viral news – she wasn’t 36 hours down a well before we were asked, “How can you care about Baby Jessica when there are children starving all over the world?”
As if that 18-month-old child could have been sacrificed to the Well Gods to cure world hunger, and as if not feeling crushed to the marrow about several hundred school girls kidnapped while writing an exam could ever bring back the 29 boys killed by Boko Haram at their school in Buni Yadi, Nigeria, in February.
While it’s not our most noble trait, this selective caring, and the barren candle-lighting that accompanies it, is perhaps our most useful adaptation as a species that must, after all, get up every morning.
It’s true that about two weeks into the life of a sad news story, fatigue at the care it requires often sets in. They’re difficult beasts. Attempts to domesticate a sad story will fail. An untamed news story won’t fit into the cozy, narrative arc in which we humans shelter from the random cruelty of life.
Mayors don’t always get arrested, girls don’t always come home, yes, President Richard Nixon resigned, but only once – a rare definitive conclusion that satisfied many of the story’s observers in a world where most news stories are destined to limp off dejected after failing in battle with a new young news story.