If It Bleeds, It Leads

Provocation by Shawn Burns

Screen capture of online local news site

Of all the confronting things to hear in a newsroom, the phrase: ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ ranks well toward the top of the list.

News editors, chiefs of staff, and journalists are well aware of the phrase, but awareness makes it nonetheless confronting when it resurfaces from time to time.

Kerbel (2000) used the phrase as the title of his book investigating the anatomy of television news. His book begins with a disclaimer:

“WARNING: Everything you are about to read is true. The following chapters contain graphic content that may not be suitable for all readers. Some of the material is of a violent or sexual nature. You may encounter descriptions of bizarre or antisocial acts, committed out of desperation by despondent individuals. There will be accounts of frightening conditions and descriptions of portentous situations, which may well make you feel threatened, fearful, endangered, jeopardized, or at risk. Some of the imagery described to you will be disturbing.

That’s because you will be watching the news.” (Kerbel, 2000, p. xi)

As a mini case study – more than a decade on, I can still hear the voice of a former state news director personifying the phrase in question on one ‘quiet’ news day. Like every newsroom chief of staff, I was faced with a blank rundown – 23 and half minutes of a bulletin to fill and nothing on the radar. Admittedly, the day was young and the first coffee was yet to be completely consumed. The phone rang, and it was my boss on the line. No ‘Good morning’, no greeting of any kind – simply: “You’ve got you’re lead – there’s been a fatal at Gundagai.” Strangely enough, this seemed to work as a greeting all the same.

So where does it come from, this news approach that allows a loss of life, the carnage of a car crash, and the instant and lasting impacts of such an event to be seen, and, it could be argued, devalued, as simply an automatic ‘lead’. Or, as it was for me on this occasion, two minutes that no longer needed to be filled in my bulletin.

I contend it comes from the presence of the fearsome ‘blank page’ or, in broadcast news, the empty daily news rundown. It is the knowledge that the in-tray is empty at the end of every news day. The stories have either run in the bulletin, or been discarded in the circular filing cabinet under your desk. Every new day starts with a ‘blank sheet’.

However, matching the predictability of an empty rundown is the inevitability of an ‘accident’. This is where it can be argued newsrooms rely on the ‘known unknown’. While the empty rundown exists, it is relatively short-lived due to the fact news ‘happens’, and in many instances this is in the form of an ‘accident’.

It was the much-maligned former US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld who memorably attempted to annunciate the concept of the ‘known unknowns’.

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknows. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we know”.

While this is confusing in its delivery, and I suspect deliberately so, the idea of ‘known unknowns’ is what keeps newsrooms active, and news directors and chiefs of staff semi-sane. It is the knowledge that while we don’t know ‘what’ is going to happen, we do know ‘something’ will – and much of the ‘something’ comes in the form of an accident – literal and metaphoric.

So, the concept: ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ starts to be placed within the frame of the ‘accident’. It could be argued the ‘bleeds’ is metaphoric in many instances – for example, the politician found to be rorting travel expenses – but, equally, a literal accident, be it a car crash, a house fire, and/or a sporting collision, is likely to lead. These events satisfy many of the elements of what make something newsworthy, most significantly ‘impact’, ‘visibility’ and ‘shock-value’. (McKane, 2006)

Interestingly, the value of a literal accident in a newsworthiness context is also influenced by proximity. Rural and regional newsrooms, in which I spent my journalism career, will look to any car ‘accident’ as a potential top story, whereas metropolitan newsrooms may require further contributing factors (e.g. number of people involved) to help decide a story’s ‘lead’ potential.

The place of the ‘accident’ in the newsroom is significant. It helps provides the content to fill the blank page, and/or the empty rundown. It serves to put truth to the phrase ‘If it bleeds, it leads’.