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Madeleine McCann story was a bullseye on the historical formula for a popular tragedy 11/27/07

Posted 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.

Kate & Gerry McCannThis 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.


1. Bob Jones - 11/28/07

The McCann story fills Sky News … its on all the time with the slightest bit of “breaking” news …

I think one of the reasons that Sky don’t listen to Murdoch on making it more like Fox is that there aren’t two sides to a story like this and the public are more interested in McCann story, somebody’s boob job, celebs gone wild, etc, than they are about politics …

2. Dave Bertelsen - 11/28/07

It’s also another example of how a few decide what is news. Even FOX news plays along. Once it is decided that this is the story to follow, all the news outlets play along creating a self-genererated cycle of interest. Even if (like me) you don’t care, you can’t watch a news program without finding out the latest on the story.

3. Peter Ralph - 11/28/07

been reading dailymail.com Steve?

you are not alone – dailymail.com is the 6th most visited news site in the US.

4. Bob Jones - 11/28/07

Dave, I’m not sure how much is the tail wagging the dog or the dog wagging the tail, I’m not even sure which side fits which in this analogy … the whole debate on who chooses the “tradgedy” stories: the news people or the consumers is so blurry.

I’d be inclined to say the people choose them, I think most news outfits cover tradgedies (albeit with some selection), the public then weed out which ones will continue to be read/seen/heard for weeks to come … I think the newspeople selection in this arena is a lot less than in other departments like politics where newspeople regularly hide and cover real stories of interest – obviously for their political interests, with these stories the only interest newspeople have is to sell newspapers so they try all stories and let the folks decide.

5. Kirsty - 11/30/07

Your message is gross and self endulgent. The child is still missing and you are harping on about satisfying your lust for a story of a kidnapped 3-year old girl. How about you get on a plane and search for yourself, as others have done? Or would that involve too much energy exertion?

McCanns are grieving parents. Would any of you have the audacity to hurl abuse at ANY other grieving parents? Because Mrs Needham (Ben’s mother) had no access to funds or connections, her son has been forgotten for 16 years. Because of the McCanns campaign, people are more aware of the dangers of predators who could be lurking anywhere, around any of our children, at beaches, funfairs, cinemas. Who can tell a predator from any other person? There should have been posters up at the Ocean Club that a girl had been missing for three years and had never been found. That would have made parents less likely to feel lulled into a sense of false security whilst on holiday and maybe, just maybe, Madeleine would not have been targetted. Instead, the Mark Warner brochures sold the idea that it was a resort that had won awards for their childcare facilities, and child safety, even showing a picture of a kayak (out at sea) containing one adult member of staff and 5 children. Supposing two children fell overboard? That would mean leaving 3 children unattended in a boat whilst the adult went to rescue the two overboard. Is this a satisfactory situation in which to place our children? Mark Warner thinks it is. The McCanns sad case has highlighted the fact that security is very lax at holiday complexes and at holiday times. Nobody wants a holiday complex to look like a prison camp, enclosed by 50 metre fences or walls. These resorts are meant to fit in with the environment in their open-plan design and easy access, which a predator would always find easy to penetrate. The McCanns were on holiday in a supposedly safe place. Please stop judging their behavior, which is exemplary and strong. I could not endure the pain they are going through and they are holding their heads high and getting on with family life despite their tragedy.

6. Steve Boriss - 11/30/07

Kirsty, I believe the McCann’s situation is a sad tragedy and have no interest in making value judgments. Life and human nature are tragic. No matter how many protections are put in place, tragedies like this will sometimes happen — and often there is nobody that can be blamed, nor can any reasonable amount of human effort prevent harm or save victims. Our human nature is also tragic that we have these sick interests in the troubles of others. It shapes our news in strange ways.

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