Last week the world had a front row seat to a drama playing out in the murky depths of the frigid North Atlantic Ocean, courtesy of a media landscape all too eager to capitalize on consumers’ hearty and perhaps morbid appetite for a sensational, tension-filled tale.
It was a story filled with suspense, tension, and peril, five men in a van-sized experimental submersible diving to view the wreck of the Titanic were lost in the deep, and a frantic search unfolded in the air and on the surface to find them before the clock ran out on their oxygen supply, dooming them to nightmarish deaths.
In the end, the search was for naught and the story had a sad ending, as a remotely operated vehicle scouring the ocean floor found the scattered remains of the sub a few hundred meters from the bow of the Titanic. The sub had succumbed to the immense pressure of the depths, violently imploding around the time it lost communication with the surface on the first day of its dive. The speed of the implosion, measured in milliseconds, was faster than the men’s ability to comprehend it, a more merciful end than the agony of awaiting suffocation over days in the frigid waters.
The media has been roundly criticized in various media outlets for its minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow coverage of the event while paying scant attention to a much larger disaster, the sinking of an overloaded fishing trawler filled with hundreds of migrants off the southwest coast of Greece. Surely hundreds of lives lost in a maritime disaster deserve more attention than the plight of a few rich tourists taking a joy ride to the Titanic.
What most critics miss, however, is that the media was giving the people what they wanted, as evidenced through the attention paid to their stories. News value in the digital age is driven by clicks, and from the earliest reports media moguls knew they had a viewer magnet drawing people in. The Titan sub search had any number of compelling story lines suited to the public’s appetite. First of all, it had faces, readily identifiable people with backstories. Several were people of great wealth, and the rich and famous have long been a bankable draw when something bad happens to them. There was a possible villain in the Titan’s owner, piloting a vessel that was deliberately excluded from industry safety certification and roundly criticized for its construction, right down to the gaming joystick used to control its movements. And of course there was the Titanic, still the subject of fascination more than 100 years after it sank while similarly ignoring warnings of danger.
I’ll admit I helped to feed the frenzy, frequently checking numerous sources for updates as the disaster unfolded. What I found disturbing was the sensational tone used in much of the reporting. Take the gaming controller as an example. It was routinely mentioned as an example of cheap, low-tech materials used to construct the Titan. I don’t recall reading a single report that went to the trouble of explaining that such a controller was wholly adequate for the task it was used for. The Titan had only two propulsion thrusters, one vertical and the other horizontal. Standard game controllers are far more sophisticated than necessary to handle the guidance task and have been demonstrated by millions of users to have the necessary precision and durability. Steering a sub with only two thrusters wasn’t rocket science, and it didn’t need a NASA-designed controller. But an article headlined “Game controller was up to the task” isn’t nearly as appealing as “Game controller part of cheap build.”
Some media outlets managed to report on the limited supply of oxygen in a straightforward manner, while others did their best to report in detail what suffocating would be like. And naturally, they all competed to get James Cameron, Titanic filmmaker and deep diving expert, to give his opinion of the situation. While other experts were available and used, landing Cameron’s star-power only added to the drama.
And then there were the scoops, the inevitable attempts to get something no one else had. Rolling Stone was the first, somehow obtaining an internal government email reporting banging sounds at regular intervals heard by Canadian sonobuoys. Never mind that Rolling Stone didn’t check any further or that the Department of Homeland Security said after the email was leaked that the noises weren’t banging, this was a scoop, a likely sign that the men were signaling to rescuers from their carbon-fiber and titanium prison at the bottom of the sea. Everyone picked it up, and the term banging was widely bandied about until the revelation Thursday that it couldn’t possibly have come from the sub because it had imploded long before. New Republic was the first to report the lawsuit filed by a former Ocean Gate engineer reportedly fired for raising safety concerns, a theme that continued to grow throughout the disaster.
Meanwhile, the sinking of the Greek fishing trawler the week before was indeed a greater tragedy in numbers of lives lost, but lacked features compelling for a U.S. audience. Americans by and large show little interest in the plight of the downtrodden in other parts of the world. Those on the trawler were escaping a situation few Americans knew or cared about. They were faceless and poor, reportable only as statistics and not human stories for news organizations which have drastically cut back on foreign correspondents. The tragedy was immense, but in terms of its ability to drive media coverage and clicks also quite impotent. If people had shown more interest in the initial stories, there would have been more coverage. Major news media these days is as much about giving the people what they want as it is about reporting hard news. News that sells is news that runs. It’s entirely likely that the big boys got more mileage out of Marjorie Taylor Greene calling Lauren Boebert a bitch on the U.S. House floor than they got out of the Greek trawler disaster.
We’re fortunate at the Timberjay not to be beholden to any large corporate interests where the dollar dictates what’s news and what isn’t. We do our best to report news in our communities accurately and fairly, bringing readers what they need to know. Some of the stories come with their own built-in drama, but we don’t try to create drama where none exists. And we also create a fair amount of interesting content about interesting people and events that make life in the North Country enjoyable. Our subscribers and advertisers tell us we’re doing a good job with their continued patronage, and it’s one we’re proud to do. We’ll listen to our reader’s feedback, but our coverage will never be driven by clicks on our website. It will be driven by what’s newsworthy.