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.