Madeleine McCann story was a bullseye on the historical formula for a popular tragedy 11/27/07Posted by Steve Boriss in Tragedies.
While many have noticed the press’ obsession with victims who are “cute, white, female, wealthy and preferably blond,” this is simply a subset of a template they have used for centuries. Building on the work of NYU Professor Mitchell Stephens, here is the historical checklist for a popular tragedy: 1) a woman or child as a victim or suspect; 2) a physically attractive victim or suspect; 3) a highborn or well-known victim or suspect; 4) some doubt about the guilt of the suspect; and 5) intimations of promiscuous or irresponsible behavior by the victim or suspect.
This formula has been a goldmine for American journalism for decades providing us with the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, Charles Manson murders, Patty Hearst kidnapping, O.J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey, Gary Condit-Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, and Natalee Holloway. And now though the miracle of globalization, Americans get to “enjoy” the tragic kidnapping of 4-year-old Madeleine McCann from her hotel room in Portugal from her attractive, socially-prominent, and partying British parents.
Understanding the public’s all-too-human interest in these tragedies might be less of a job for a scientist than a 13th century theologian like Thomas Aquinas. Among the 7 deadly sins he categorized, these popular tragedies appeal to most of them — envy, pride, greed, and lust. Beyond providing us with lust-provoking things to watch and think about, our greed makes us envy those of wealth or prominence, whose troubled lives restore our pride that our own, less glamorous lives are acceptable. When mainstream news tries to avoid stories that are sensational and titillating, they are fighting against their own customers’ human nature. Good luck with that.