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We've All Become Addicted To Tragedy Porn

When I was 15 a friend of mine died.

He was sweet and bubbly and good looking, and everyone at my high school adored him.  He was one of those rare kids who could float between social groups; so impossibly mature for his age that he somehow defied the laws of hierarchy.

His death hit us all hard. And, as happens after someone dies, we coped by sharing stories. Everyone had an anecdote about the time Nico* had cheered them up, or given them a necklace, or kissed them on the cheek. My story involved Nico and me in the woodwork room, laughing uncontrollably at some ridiculous in-joke as Mr Parker barked his detention threats.

But as I told that story, again and again, I began to question myself.

How close was I to Nico, really? Should I stop referring to him as my good friend? Would he have thought of me that way?

When did someone's tragic story get turned into an unspoken competition? (Image: Getty)

I was questioning myself because I knew that on some level, I was sharing my story in order to prove just how important I had been to Nico. We all were. An unspoken competition had taken hold of the school: who was really the closest to Nico?

Why do we do that, when someone dies? What are we getting out of positioning ourselves, retrospectively, within the deceased’s inner circle?

There’s something about the tragedies of others that draws us in.

Whether it’s a mental illness, an addiction, a robbery; there’s always someone ready to associate themselves with the story. Maybe they share the news with friends, making sure to point out just how close they are to the unlucky family.  Perhaps they make a display of sympathy on social media.

In 2015 my sister was incarcerated for murder, following a long battle with mental illness and addiction. She was pregnant at the time of the crime. Her story was the definition of tragedy porn: morbid, salacious, dripping with drama.

It wasn’t till months after the sentencing that we finally decided to go public with our experiences.

My sister (L) and I as children. (Image: Supplied)

But a strange thing happened: no matter who we told, no matter how distant an acquaintance they happened to be; they already knew.

And they knew details. The thing was, the details were wrong.

Our story had become its own life force, twisting its way through the vast landscape of our outer-most circles, each teller adding their own bit of zest to the narrative. When I would run into someone after years and they would admit to having been told the news, it was always by a friend who “knew the story well”.

We hadn’t told anyone the story.

Of course, we couldn’t have expected anything less. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a gossip; we all do it. I’ve often relished the opportunity to be the teller of a prurient tale.

But in the age of mass-produced social media-sympathy, I think it’s worth reflecting on our motivations when we do engage with a tragic story.

Sympathy these days is big business. In 2018, Melbourne witnessed the second Bourke street terror attack. In Queensland, horror floods in March were followed by nightmare bushfires in November. Each time, a hashtag trended, thousands of thoughts and prayers poured in, and fundraising campaigns drew serious cash.

What are our motivations when engaging with a tragic story? (Image: Getty)

At best, this mass-sharing of tragic stories can achieve incredible ends. At worst, it can end up elevating the interests of opportunists who jump on the trend at the expense of victims.

That’s what allegedly happened when, in 2017, New Jersey woman Kate McClure started a GoFundMe campaign for a homeless veteran. She launched the fundraiser on the back of the ultimate feel-good story: the man had reportedly handed her his last $20 after she ran out of fuel in a ‘bad neighbourhood’. The public loved the tale, and collectively coughed up more than US$400,000 for the generous man.

Problem was, the story was bogus -- the trio had known each other for a month before they colluded to scam the public, according to New Jersey prosecutor Scott Coffina, upon announcing criminal charges. In an earlier lawsuit, the court heard that the woman and her husband had spent the money on a BMW and an expensive holiday, among other luxuries.

If found guilty, this trio exploited our thirst for tragedy porn for their own social and financial gain.

The alleged story is uniformly awful, and represents the morally corrupt end of the tragedy-porn spectrum. But it can also function as a cautionary tale for the rest of us, because in between harmless gossip and full-on exploitation, there’s a vast ethical grey area.

Kate McClure (L), her boyfriend Mark D'Amico and vagrant Johnny Bobbitt (R) face criminal charges over an alleged Go Fund Me scam. (Image: Go Fund Me)

We enter that grey area every time we share someone else’s story, in real life or on social media. Pretty much everything I report on exists in the grey area.  Why?

Because we’re rewarded for engaging with the tragedies of others. The more heart-wrenching a story is, the higher the rewards are.

They may come in the form of riveted attention, they may come in the form or clicks and likes. And, if we can position ourselves as an instrumental part of the redemption narrative, we are further rewarded with praise for our goodness.

It’s a potent elixir.

It doesn’t mean that we’re being selfish every time we make a heartfelt show of sympathy for terror victims on Facebook. It just means we should reflect on our motivations before we hit post.

It’s something I’ve had to learn to do. Am I writing this think-piece on homelessness because I truly care about the outcomes for the people I’m featuring, or because I want to make myself look compassionate? The difference matters because, if I fetishize or patronise my subjects, I risk alienating them from my audience and increasing the stigma they face.

We’re rewarded for engaging with the tragedies of others.  The more heart-wrenching a story is, the higher the rewards are. (Image: Getty)

I never mean to do any harm in service of my goals, but if I don’t consciously assess my motives, I could end up prioritising my career over my morality.

So, when I write an article, I ask myself some questions:  Who benefits from the telling of this story?

What impact, if any, might it have on the subject/s?

How am I positioning myself in the narrative?

Have I been careful not to cast myself as a saviour?

Trust me, I’ve failed this test many times. But I’m trying.

I believe that the vast majority of the time, people do things for the right reasons. But, at a time when we are rewarded for involving ourselves in the tragedies of others, it’s probably a good idea to ask ourselves our own set of questions. Just to make sure.