This week, Charlie Brooker found something interesting to say about a topic I’d given up: I was as sad about Jade Goody as I would be about anyone I was peripherally aware of going through something agonisingly tragic, I wasn’t perplexed by the coverage (she invited it, it sold), and while it made me a bit uncomfortable, it didn’t send me into giddy horrors at the unimaginable depravity of everyone else.
Brooker, obviously, goes a bit better than my dillentante blogging:
Throughout the depressing blanket coverage, Jade was repeatedly referred to as a “star of reality TV”, which she was – although it’s more accurate to say she was a star of reality TV and news. After all, in her final weeks, taken accumulatively, she made far more appearances on the front pages and in news broadcasts than on her Living TV specials. […] In the end, Jade Goody died on the biggest reality show going: not Big Brother or some Living TV special, but the news. After all, with its jaunty titles and its easy hate figures, its selective storytelling and its stupid viewer votes, it’s a hairsbreadth from being a multi-platform I’m A Celebrity spin-off.
Brooker’s always been sharp on the idea that reality TV viewers (including him) are responding to the editing and not the actual people. But the with factual TV adopting the narrative and editorial structures of reality TV’s semi-fiction, viewers respond to real events – like the death of a young mother-of-two – as if they were the fabrications of the editing suite. Which they sort of are.
A story like the Jade one is a grotesque feedback loop: the editors follow the story because they presume the readers are interested, the publicity drives interest and becomes a story in itself, and viewers and readers respond with extremes of emotion, from vomitously sympathetic to gorily inhumane, while interest in analysis or investigation is driven out by the perpetual gush of feeling. And that’s how the news gets made.