In addition to the comments you see here on our blogs and news stories about aviation events of the day, we get a small trickle of background e-mail with questions, suggestions and the occasional Molotov cocktail. I got one of the latter last night from a reader who allowed as how I was a disgrace to the profession of journalism for getting my facts wrong in the blog about the stolen Cessna 172. He didn't elaborate on what facts were wrong nor did he quite get the idea that blogs are often opinion pieces. His diatribe alluded to something we see often: the phrase "sensationalist media."
I always find this curious and the way news dissemination works on the web illuminates it in ways you might not appreciate. The theory of sensationalist media holds that a news story becomes a news story only because some bored editor hears about it and blows it entirely out proportion, the old "if it bleeds, it leads" test.
But here's another test: Let's say you're in your garden in Michigan putting in your spring bulbs when a Cessna 172 putts by trailing a couple of F-16s hanging on the blades. Do you (a) not even look up from your spade work, (b) look up and think, "hey, jes' the usual F-16 two-ship chasing a Skyhawk" or (c) look up and wonder what hell that's all about. Most of us would pick (c), and that's the essence of what makes a news story a news story: Curiosity.
The web has given us new understanding of how this works. Our site software tells us how many people click on which stories. When we run a breaking crash story or video of something like the Flight 1549 ditching in the Hudson, page views go through the roof. The graph looks like an elevation view of Kansas with Mount Everest in the middle.
There are a couple of ways to interpret this, I suppose. One is that all those clicks are really plaintive votes from readers begging us to stop forcing them to read and view this stuff and to quit appealing to their baser instincts. The other is that readers really like this sort of thing because they're
curious. I'm liking the second explanation.
The aspect of sensationalist media that does ring true is how the story is played. "U.S. INVADED BY AIR FROM CANADA" is at one end of the spectrum, "F-16's INTERCEPT PRIVATE AIRCRAFT" is at the other. Either way, this sort of thing doesn't happen every day and that's what makes it news. As an aviation web site, you expect us to exercise good judgment in tailoring the story to your needs and to acknowledge the fact that you're aviation savvy. I think we generally succeed at that. If you think we don't, let us know. Sometimes, the duty we have in reporting such stories is to provide you with enough information to keep the same thing from happening to you.
Of course, no matter what, in the dynamic world of web journalism, you have voting rights that never expire. If you don't want crash stories or even pieces that don't unfailingly paint GA in the best light, don't click on them. We'll get the message.
Now, personally, I do the crash stuff only in response to popular demand. My own tastes are far loftier, an instinct I developed as an adolescent when I bought Playboy to read the articles.