The Age of Useless Information

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At the end of this summer, Terry Grier will step down as president of Ryerson. In the last seven years, Grier has overseen the addition of new programs and dramatic changes in others, and fought for our current status as a university. From all accounts, he has been a pretty good president.

Nobody outside Ryerson will ever know this.

They will, however, know how many times Paul Bernardo beat and raped a little girl. They will how many pills Karla Holmolka gave her, and what tools Bernardo used to torment her.

Looking at the world around me, I cannot help but feel that the things that are important to us as a society are being washed away in a sea of gore-drenched detail.

I’m not suggesting that things like the Bernardo trial should not be covered, or that all media should be well-scrubbed smiling faces giving only the good news. Far from it. What I find frightening is the amount of useless information being shoved down my throat. The Star and the Sun both had two-page spreads of the opening address of the prosecutor in the Bernardo trial — two pages of essentially unproven allegations. Relentless printing of every horror they could in the case. Thousands of words that could have been used to notify people of community events, to praise worthy charities, expose corrupt politicians. Thousands of words, used instead to tell us what Bernardo allegedly had for dinner. 

Why this preoccupation with the macabre? There are two explanations usually given. The first is that the “whole truth must be told.” A noble image, that of the stern editor agonizing over printing things that must be upsetting, but forging onward in the name of Truth and Journalism. But the truth, as this stoic champion knows, has already been edited. As soon as facts stop being shocking, they become irrelevant.

The second explanation is that the public wants to know these details. Television shows like Hard Copy and COPS are frequently cited with a shrug of the shoulders. But are appetites for gory detail inherent, or created? Would people have a consuming interest in the details of the case if they weren’t lavishly re-presented? Would they be camping out to observe the Bernardo trial if they had not been enticed by extensive pre-trial coverage? People never seek out road accidents to stare at, but they always slow down. Are we, the news media, dragging corpses out of ditches and laying them on the soft shoulder on the pretext that people want to see them?

I’m not trying to lay blame. As a new editor, I find myself asking questions I have before had the luxury to avoid. When do the facts stop serving the story to become an entity unto themselves? What “atmosphere” is justified?

I’m not about to pretend I have the answers to these questions. Hopefully, through the next year, I will be able to feel out my own answers and try to strike a balance between what is relevant and just macabre. I don’t know. But I do know one thing:

Terry Grier was, by all accounts, a pretty good president. And virtually nobody will ever know.

– Matthew Sheperd

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