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Reading online news is a great way to stay constantly updated on what’s going on in the world without having to rely on television. And in times of great tragedy the Internet has shown itself to be incomparable in its ability to make information move quickly for the good of public awareness and safety. But for all its positive points in communicating important information related to devastating events, the Net has also helped citizens become reliant upon — even addicted to — the constant flows of useless information.

The barrage of endless updates on missing people, murders and the like combined with the Internet’s ability to allow us to openly share speculation and rumor might even make some bad situations worse, as we lose our sense of “innocent until proven guilty” in the online court of public opinion. I’ve found myself hooked in on the online rubbernecking and I can’t help but think that it’s a bad thing for readers and for the sake of these cases.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but in recent years I’ve become more and more interested in tragic news stories. And while I don’t consume cable news — a platform which thrives on missing persons, trapped miners and plane crashes — I find myself increasingly drawn to online news sites to get the latest on the stories which capture my curiosity and (apparently) that of millions: missing people, strange disappearances, bizarre murders. Every new drop of news that comes in seems to fuel the addiction further, and between checking emails, I’ll also check up on the latest bridge collapse or missing co-ed, often toggling between sites. Tragedies and scandals are updated minute-by-minute, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week online, even when there is nothing really important to add to the story.

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Google News Headlines

In pondering this new interest in macabre news, I wonder about the role played by the nature of online media itself, constantly being updated, with new details of a story emerging with every click of the Refresh button on my browser. The seemingly endless stream of updates inspires me to conjecture, debate stories with others, and in turn creates more interest. It’s an unhealthy habit and its contribution to my life is dubious.

Missing Madeleine: We’re All Sleuths

The contribution these updates have to the cases themselves is also questionable, and the online coverage of these events and its associated open forum — the Internet — might even be harmful for those involved in the tragedies. Case in point: the alleged abduction of Madeleine McCann, a 3-year-old British girl who disappeared while vacationing with her parents at a Portuguese resort. The case has all the stuff that makes for great headlines. The parents, both good-looking doctors, had left the child unattended. They allegedly sedated her so they could go have dinner with friends, and returned to find her missing from her bed.

As juicy as it was, this might have been a story that only European media would cover extensively. But with the help of U.S. news media always hungry for a good missing persons case and the distribution of the Internet, this tragic story is now much bigger than that; it’s a full-blown media circus and at the center, a couple is being judged by millions online.

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Madeleine McCann

In the months since Madeleine’s disappearance, the media has covered this story to the point of exhaustion, and an international drama is unfolding on the Internet as John Q. Public throws his two cents in on message boards, news sites and blogs. As days pass and the child is still missing, the investigation — and the media — has gone from sympathetic to accusatory, with the parents in the spotlight. Headlines ask why the child was left alone in a hotel room while her parents dined with friends at a restaurant. The public points a pristine finger at the McCanns as details and rumors bubble up. In a recent opinion piece entitled “You Are All Guilty,” the Sunday Times’ India Knight writes, “The public is to blame for the heartless abuse being heaped on Kate McCann [the child’s mother]. The Internet has blurred the lines of news and hearsay and the result is trial by global gossip.”

Responding to an article about British media’s obsession with the case in the UK magazine New Statesman, one commenter chides the online audience, calling them worse than the infamous tabloids: “Compared to the Internet forums, the tabloid coverage has actually had some measure of balance to it. The McCanns have been found guilty by the mob in the cyberspace kangaroo court.”

Just a glance at some Internet news sites will tell you the sort of importance that’s being placed on this case online. The Sky News website has an entire section dedicated to developing news about the case. While presumably not quite as obsessed, the BBC website has extensive coverage as well, and the U.S. version of CNN also has a page for the McCann case.
While media frenzies are nothing new, the reach and the connective power of the Internet amplifies curiosity and speculation.

The Lindbergh Parallel

The first real media circus around a missing person was the disappearance — under similar circumstances — of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son in 1932. I wonder how that case would have played out if the Internet existed at that time. The Lindbergh family wrote that during the investigation and negotiations with kidnappers, “The publicity makes it almost impossible for them to get the baby to us.”

Back then, the media was limited to newspapers, magazines and radio, and the public was on the receiving end of the information chain. But if the Lindbergh case happened today, would the spotlight be turned on them as it has been turned on the McCanns? Journalist Ian Jack of The Guardian was also reminded of the Lindbergh baby media frenzy in looking at the McCann case, and illustrates our access to collective rushed judgment in this uber-connected era. “This week readers of the Daily Express were invited to respond to the question ‘Were Madeleine’s parents involved in her death?’ by phoning or texting Yes or No — and ‘death,’ note, not disappearance,” he wrote.

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SkyNews’ Madeleine McCann headlines

Any and every bit of information is news in these cases. Cable news was the first to discover the formula. Most anything on CNN warrants the label “developing story” or “breaking news,” no matter how insignificant. Internet media has followed this model to some extent, as constantly updated newspaper and TV news sites keep readers more than up to date — up to the second — with details that may or may not be important, but fuel our curiosity and keep us hooked in nonetheless. SkyNews’ editor admitted on his blog last month that their dilemma in all of this “has been how to satisfy the public hunger for news without adding to the speculation and myth-making that has been rife.”

But it’s precisely this type of speculation that fuels our interest. Internet news sites, blogs and discussion boards provide a forum in which people can speculate, judge and investigate en masse in ways that no other medium can. As information emerges about the case in dribs and drabs on the Internet, we all become online detectives, somehow believing that with the pieces of “evidence” we are finding online, we are somehow more enlightened than the authorities that are actually charged with bringing the culprits to justice.

Unlike with TV news, which makes us reactive consumers of the news, online we are proactive seekers of information, and it’s much more fun to sniff out angles than just be told the facts. In reflecting on her own struggle with online compulsion to this story, India Knight of the Sunday Times sums it up well: “I want to stop reading, listening, watching, Googling, amateur sleuthing; I nauseate myself with my own prurience. My appetite for commentary — which is all that’s left, in the absense of hard facts — has been sated many times over. But I can’t stop.”

It seems that like India, I can’t stop either. My interest in this type of news makes me feel morally bankrupt, though I can partially blame my morbid curiosity on the fact that it is pushed in my face constantly. It creeps into my RSS feeds, appears on my Google homepage, and even shows up in Twitter updates — though, of course, I signed up for all of them. It’s a sad thing to admit, but I insist that it’s not about Madeleine but about the cinematic nature of the story, harped on by media which adds twists and turns constantly refreshed for our reading pleasure. It makes me wonder how much of this public attention could be described with words such as “empathy” or “care” and how much is just macabre entertainment.

What do you think? Does Internet news go too far in constantly adding to these stories? Are online media, message boards and blogs partly to blame for blowing this type of story out of proportion? What makes you feel compelled (or not compelled) to follow this type of news? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.