And the results are in: a low-life, accused killer has been named Canadian newsmaker of the year. Like many people, I'm sure, I find this a regrettable development.
Luka Rocco Magnotta, dubbed "Canadian Psycho" for his alleged murder and dismemberment of university student Jun Lin, was voted to be the most newsmaking figure in not one, but two surveys of editors and news directors around the country.
Canadian Press and the QMI agency announced the results of their surveys in recent days. With no offence intended to the editors who made that judgment (hey, this is journalism, not politics, we're allowed to question judgment up the chain), I wish they had arrived at a different result.
No question -- Magnotta did generate a lot of news last June, and the crime story also briefly leaped into the political-news category when gruesome packages were sent to two Canadian political parties. But I can't shake the sense that this is somehow a reward for the worst kind of public infamy; precisely the type of attention that deranged individuals seek. It's the kind of story that deserves to be filed away and forgotten, just like the person who perpetrates the crime.
The one-big-story, media-pile-on phenomenon is a staple of modern journalism. I'm referring here to the media's tendency to pour huge resources into one big story (roving, rolling targets of our collective interest) to the exclusion of others. A journalism-prof friend of mine traces it to the death of Princess Diana in the late 1990s. You know the drill by now -- something large happens, we give it an Important Title, and the multiple stories flow, including, of course, Your Reaction to such-and-such. A week or so later, it's forgotten, in favour of the Next Big Story.
I don't want to be too dismissive of this saturation-style coverage. Sometimes it is true that we need to read a lot of stories about one thing, for many days at a time. September 11, 2001 leaps to mind.
And more recently, I've been starting to notice the stirrings of something positive in the midst of mercurial, mass-media attention. People are starting to remark on the need to channel that temporary, collective interest into a permanent, concrete result. It's not enough, in other words, to proclaim that "a nation grieves" or "a nation looks in horror" and then, only days later, drop the subject altogether.
You see this happening, for instance, in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings in Connecticut. Like the Magnotta case, it was a horrible tragedy generated by one, clearly deranged person -- a crime without a motive, a senseless disaster. But the mass attention to this school massacre has been accompanied by a lot of talk of what we do to make sure our attention to this issue isn't fleeting or temporary. Much commentary has focused on whether Newtown marks a turning point -- whether this is the gun tragedy that will finally make the United States get serious about firearms control.
That in itself is not new: the shooting at L'Ecole Polytechnique in 1989 galvanized gun-control efforts in Canada for a decade or so. What's new in the Connecticut aftermath, it seems to me, is the pointed mention of mass attention-deficit disorder that accompanies the mass coverage.
Relatedly, I think that's why you saw people (including me) express so much frustration when President Obama held the post-Newtown press conference, only to be flooded with political-process, fiscal-cliff questions from the assembled White House reporters. "Hey," people seemed to be saying, "we're not done with this yet."
In short, I'm hoping we're starting to pay attention to the attention -- how big stories suddenly get small, and how we can sort which developments deserve our lingering interest.
That brings me back to Magnotta. It's left us with lasting images, but few lingering insights. We peered (those of us with strong stomachs) into his sad, grisly world, but it wasn't a story that made us look into our own. On that score, the Ikea monkey did a better job: it at least generated some discussion about the relationship between humans and pets and laws around exotic animals.
My objections to Magnotta as newsmaker aren't personal -- I recognize that egregious people make news and being a "newsmaker" isn't necessarily a reward for good behaviour. But it seems to me that the biggest news of the year should somehow revolve around societal insights, not mere infamy.