If it bleeds it leads

The last four episodes of The Wire have begun to shape the thematic narrative of this season to a greater extent. The media plays a really important role this season as it begs the question of what value media serves. In the sixth episode of this season “The Dickensian Aspect”, Gus makes the statement “If it bleeds it leads”. This is a common statement used when talking about the media and in many ways, it exemplifies the message of this season

“If it bleeds it leads” refers to sensationalism, stating that the media draws attention not towards that which is the most relevant but rather that which is the most exciting for the observer. Twenty-two dead bodies were found in the vacant housing of Baltimore and while it did draw some attention, it did not cause the Mayor to increase funding for the investigation. However, once McNulty doctored a serial killer case and leaked it to The Sun, drastic action was taken to solve the problem. Beyond that, Scott’s involvement in the case allowed him to portray himself as a hero on television and as a result gains acclaim. Scott begins to write in a hyperbolic manner and though Gus chastises his use of exaggerated language, the other editors opt to run the story as it is in order to sell more papers.

Sensationalism is very important to this season. Nearly every plot running through the show is directly related to this idea. In the most literal sense, it is manifested in the storyline of Scott, who is exaggerating and making up stories for the sake of his career and McNulty uses sensationalism to procure funding for the police. But this also takes place when looking at Carcetti, whose decisions are always based upon what will help his image, such as his decision to begin working from a homelessness base. This is important because it presents us with the idea of image and reputation. The Wire shows us the importance of images. Everything that is happening in the show is impacted by the image of the character.

Many critics of this argument state that sensationalism is often called out when it is unwarranted. They state that merely the use of sensational language does not necessarily entail sensationalism, as it does not mean it was written using doctored facts. Regardless of this, it is clear that Simon seeks to explore the nuances of sensationalism, and how it can lead to misconduct in the interest of personal gain.

17 thoughts on “If it bleeds it leads

  1. Shira Greer

    Sensationalism is most definitely a vital component of this season. Throughout the season, the concept of sensationalism has been inextricably linked with money. As you mentioned, the Sun allows sensationalist reporting from Scott Templeton in order to sell more papers, but they also strategically choose the length of stories and their placement in the paper, as with Alma Gutierrez’s story on the home invasion. In addition, McNulty and Freamon falsify the serial killer case in order to secure funding which can be used for Freamon’s case on Marlo Stanfield and doled out to other homicide detectives in need, such as Detective Norris. This theme of sensationalism is important to the show as it further illustrates one of The Wire’s overarching themes throughout the series: the deterioration of urban life as a result of capitalism run amok. Since money dominates all of Baltimore’s institutions, it is the primary motivator of those in power, such as Carcetti and the Tribune executives. As such, these people in power make decisions based on economics rather than morals, which in this season leads to the deterioration of both the Baltimore Police Department and the Baltimore Sun. This results in the desperate actions we see from a multitude of characters, such as McNulty and Freamon falsifying the serial killer case and James Whiting approving Templeton’s exaggerated stories. While seeing these events unfold among institutions that are supposed to work to the benefit of the people is disheartening, I think that it is ultimately fitting for The Wire to explore these issues as it is in line with their portrayal of Baltimore as a modern Greek tragedy.

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    1. Jamie Polak

      I like how you further the idea of sensationalism to connect it to how it is a result of capitalism, how money motivates the Baltimore Sun and police department instead of working for the benefit of the people of Baltimore. It would be interesting if you could expand on how this season especially portrays Baltimore as a modern day Greek tragedy.

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  2. Elizabeth Colantonio

    Sensationalism is a huge aspect of this last season of The Wire. As you state, we see sensationalism a lot in The Sun. One interaction that stood out to me was when Mcnulty added that the serial killer he created had sexual intentions. McNulty did this because The Sun said that the original story of the serial killer was too bland for the front page and he needed the public to see the story so that he could get the money to fund his investigation. This act is clearly an example of sensationalism, but I think it also brings to light the caution we must take as a society when it comes to putting full trust in those who are supposed to be working and helping the people. In this season, Simon clearly shows that the people who work for the public aren’t as trustworthy as we would hope. From McNulty and Freamon’s lies about the serial killer to the fake phone call by the reporter, it is obvious that the people who work for the public don’t always tell us the truth we deserve. it is pretty scary to think about the lies we may be believing in the public, but how are we suppose to know what to trust and not trust if these people are supposed to be providing us with the truthful information we need to stay informed in society? Unfortunately, I believe the answer to this very difficult and may never be solved. The issue of sensationalism has led many to execute actions for personal gain that in the end hurt the public and it truly is a tragedy is society.

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    1. Jamie Polak

      You do a good job of identifying how Simon in his 5th season of the show is trying to demonstrate to the viewer how the institutions of the police department and media cannot be trusted to report the truth. It would be interesting if you could connect the issue of for people trusting the Baltimore Sun to contemporary media outlets and how “fake news” ties into this season of The Wire

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    2. Jamie Polak

      You do a good job of identifying how Simon in his 5th season of the show is trying to demonstrate to the viewer how the institutions of the police department and media cannot be trusted to report the truth. It would be interesting if you could connect the issue of for people trusting the Baltimore Sun to contemporary media outlets and how “fake news” ties into this season of The Wire.

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  3. Cameron Keeley-Parker

    Great post, Avery! You all did a great job pointing out the sensationalism present in the media through The Baltimore Sun. This focus on sensationalism, especially in Scott’s creation of fake stories, could be described as modern-day yellow journalism.
    I believe Simon focuses on sensationalism so much this season because he wants to expose the masses to the dangers of it. The sensational story of the serial killer caused quite a fiasco for both McNulty and Templeton. Templeton got the attention and influence over at The Sun that he wanted at the expense of honest journalism. Honest journalism is a pillar of the media that should not be understated as it allows citizens to have factual, reliable information. On the opposite side in the police department, McNulty got the resources he needed to follow Marlo Stanfield but at the expense of actual cases, like Kima’s triple homicide that could help the police convict Snoop, Chris, Marlo, and even Michael. I think Simon also emphasized sensationalism to expose the inadequacies of modern journalism. Before the story about the serial killer emerged, The Sun lacked the money and resources necessary to uphold journalistic standards. Buyouts caused some of its greatest journalists to lose their jobs. In addition, stories of very little importance to the public were emphasized in order to sell more issues. For example, Alma’s story about the triple homicide was relegated to a small spot in one of the inner pages when it should have been at least front-page news. All of these factors and the sensationalism prevalent later on expose how journalistic institutions are manipulated by capitalist forces to emphasize money and ad revenue over factual, reliable information and story-coverage.

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    1. Lauren Stenson

      I love your comment Cameron! It is important to note that their goal have been achieved the right way if they had gone with their real cases instead of falsifying information. I think that this is definitely one Simon’s main focuses when addressing this issue. That is even more interesting knowing Simon’s past as a journalist. It is also genius to tie it back to the capitalist cycle that run our society. At the end of the day, money is often valued more than reliable products. In this case, the product is information.

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  4. Amara

    I appreciate your post, Gus’s Phrase,” If it bleeds it reads,” is definitely the summary of what we’ve seen in these past episodes. Sensationalism a key theme this season, has brought about a significant amount of attention to the media, the police department and even the Mayor’s office. Simon’s introduction of this into this season, really allows his audience to think deeper into what they hear, read or see. He asserts that Sensationalism is indeed a real problem that is not only wrong with the news but the way we process things as human beings as well. I agree with you Simon this season is definitely exploring the nuances of sensationalism and its overall effects.

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    1. Lauren Stenson

      Yes this season is definitely geared toward bringing awareness of this issue to the public. I also definitely agree that Simon is challenging the viewers to rethink that they absorb news. However, this places a lot of the accountability on the public. People should be wise with how they digest information but who Is truly responsible? the public or the journalist? ( this is a rhetorical question you don’t have to respond and answer because we will ask this in class)

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  5. Caterina Erdas

    Sensationalism is definitely driving the media, police, and politics. Both the media and police are forced to use sensationless to help them keep their institutions afloat. McNulty creates a fake serial killer to force the mayor to give necessary resources to the police. At first, Scott was motivated by self-promotion to exaggerate and fabricate stories. Since he has decided to stay with the Sun, now he does it to keep the paper running. But Carcetti and his team simply use sensationalism to push their personal agenda for the governor’s seat. Carcetti ran for mayor by exposing the murdered eyewitness and false police reports, promising to lower crime in the city. He did no such thing, and now he jumped onto the next hot topic: homelessness. Sensationalism is dangerous. When a topic does get attention, progress can start to happen, then attention quickly shifts to something else, “pulling the rug out” from underneath any progress. This has happened time and time again with past cases. Recently in The Wire, Clay Davis’s trial lost publicity because of the serial killer case. Therefore the trial did not get coverage and Davis’s base still follows him.

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    1. Lauren Stenson

      I definitely agree that sensationalism is inherently dangerous. However as you seem to have stated, it was used as a “means to and end” strategy to achieve “justice”. Simon has done a good job illustrating that justice is more reliable when gone about the right way. This is definitely because of the “pulling the rug out” occurrence. Exciting news will always eventually get “old” which will contribute to a cycle of no progress.

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    2. Jamie Polak

      You bring up an interesting point about how Carcetti failed to fulfill the promises he made before his election and is no jumping to the “next hot topic” of homelessness. Do we not see this today in contemporary politics? It would be an interesting discussion point to address how modern day politicians to the same thing. For example, with the issue of immigration we see politicians rush to express their views on the topic because it is the “next hot topic.”

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  6. A'kayla Williams

    I agree that sensationalism has played a vital role in this season as it pertains to the last couple of episodes. I think it is crucial and nearly that Simon introduces the audience to the position that media plays in the Wire and the real world. In this season, McNulty manipulates the serial killer case to gain more attention. I agree with the statement “if it bleeds it leads” because even when watching the news or reading news articles, the stories that are headlined are very shocking and dramatic. If its boring or has no real interest, it often goes unnoticed. Sensationalism is also dangerous because it can distract the viewers from the real issues. For example, the serial killer case that McNulty is falsifying is distracting from the real problems that are happening.

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    1. Lauren Stenson

      This is definitely true. Sensationalism is dangerous but it is perpetuated because of the public’s desire for exciting news. We see this everywhere. Dramatic action movies often get the best ratings and it is true that the more dramatic stories get the most attention. The real question to ask ourselves would be how do we end this cycle if it a natural human desire to seek the exciting head turning information. (rhetorical – we will ask in class)

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    2. Jamie Polak

      Yes, I agree with you about how it was very important for Simon to include the position that media plays in contemporary media in the final season of the show. Yet, even though McNulty is distracting the public with the serial killer he is doing this in order to get funds to bring attention to a bigger problem; Marlo Stanfield and the bodies he is putting out.

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  7. Brianna Charlton

    Sensationalism is very prevalent in this season thus far and I think that it’s great for Simon to show us how much influence the media has in Baltimore. In the other seasons, he’s sort of alluded to the importance of the media in terms of the police department, but we really get to see it first hand now. We notice that when McNulty initially brought up his imaginary serial killer to the media – no one was interested. However, as soon as Freamon is told what is going on he suggests to McNulty that he sensationalize the killer because he knows that this is how the media will latch onto the story. Overall, I think McNulty and Freamon’s imaginary serial killer is an interesting discussion to be had. In class we often talk about them being purely good cops – or Freamon at least. Even though they each have their bad days, 9 times out 10 they just want to get their job done. I’m intrigued as to whether or not their lies change our opinions of them? They’re still just doing their job, but at what length? If I were playing devil’s advocate, I’d say that yeah they created a serial killer and lied to the media – but its so that they can have enough funding to stop the real ones.

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    1. Lauren Stenson

      I definitely Bri!! This is exactly what I will be asking everyone is class today. These are the actions that both McNulty and Freamon frowned upon in the first few seasons. This begs the real question of can we truly have justice without sensationalism. Is sensationalism useful at all or should we address it and actively work against never using it?

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