Opinion: What ‘Nightcrawler’ says about the news

"Nightcrawler" still from nightcrawlerfilm.com

“Nightcrawler” still from nightcrawlerfilm.com

“Nightcrawler,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Dan Gilroy, follows a news stringer in modern Los Angeles. Lou, played by Gyllenhaal, finds his calling listening to police scanners, driving from scene to scene and videotaping accidents and crimes, sometimes as they happen.

A major theme of the film is our fascination with graphic stories: “If it bleeds it leads,” says one of the characters to Lou early on. Whenever there’s a major crime in the United States, and sometimes Canada, local TV news makes an effort to cover it from every angle.

Interviews surrounding the release of the film include those with various real-life news stringers. At least in the United States, a shooting isn’t interesting if it comes from an area known for gang activity; it’s far more interesting if something like that comes from a “peaceful” area.

It’s never totally clear who the villain is in the film. Is it Lou, with his lack of ethics? Or his editor, for encouraging and rewarding Lou financially?

What about the audience? Are they the villains? Television news audiences demand bloody stories. Though this isn’t a huge problem for publicly funded networks, it’s important to networks funded by advertising.

Violent crime has been decreasing dramatically, year by year, over the last 25 years, but the news would have you believe otherwise, depending on where you live. School shootings and other lone-wolf acts of violence are televised constantly, as long as the story brings eyeballs to the television screen.

In some ways, violent news skews the way we view reality. For the average person, witnessing an actual crime or accident is rare, at least in Vancouver, but it’s an everyday occurrence for first-responders and emergency services. If the news show these scenes constantly, it could appear that we live in a violent world.

To a degree, violence in the news is an inevitability, as violence happens in real life, and it could be argued that we need to be aware of it. Perhaps scenes of car accidents drive home the message that we need to wear our seat belt, stay sober and drive under the speed limit. In one story, a car accident did indeed happen, both passengers died, alcohol was involved, but do we need to see their bodies?

Are we better informed by this? For some, car accidents in the news are nothing but a passing mention. An hourly report on the radio will tell you the traffic is backed up on the highway “due to an accident,” but no other details are provided. It’s an explanation for why you’ll be late to work.

Are we better informed when the grisly details are mentioned? In the instance of school shootings, national news in the United States used to have a tendency to provide the name of the killer(s), the (speculated) motivations behind the rampages, images of faces, people killed, the weapons used. Further into the past, around the time of the Columbine shootings, there were news segments where Klebold and Harris’s entire plan was broken down and discussed in detail: How they moved around the school, how long it took for them to plan it, and so on. This has had a damaging effect of raising them to celebrity status, making every aspect of their lives seem interesting.

In the case of the Boston bombing of last year, and the Newtown shootings, television news was in a frenzy, and for the first several hours, much of the information they were receiving was wrong. For a while, Ryan Lanza was incorrectly believed to be the Newtown shooter. Even though it wasn’t verified, many news outlets posted the information anyway.

The news puts a high value on violent stories, for the simple reason that the audience want them. When the news becomes motivated by profits, quality starts to slip, as it did in the rush to verify the shooter at Newtown. In a capitalist society, when the customers want bullshit, bullshit is what they’ll get.

Tristan Johnston

Tristan Johnston is interested in language, geopolitics and getting the city to work properly.

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