If it bleeds, it leads

“If it bleeds, it leads” is a common saying in American newsrooms and TV stations.

My informant is my mother, a 60-year old woman who spent most of her career working in print journalism. She learned the saying upon entering the industry in the early 1970’s. It was often performed by one journalist to another to explain why something violent had recently ended up on the front page, as opposed to other pieces written that day. My informant explained the saying as thus:

“That’s really a TV thing but it’s certainly true with the paper too. It’s true with print also. So the idea is that if there’s been violence, if somebody was shot or killed or hurt, that that would be the thing that would take dominance in the news.”

I asked her what she thought of this phenomenon:

“Yeah, so that’s—it’s a very unfortunate development in news because obviously it means that we—not that the death of somebody isn’t important but the idea that that would be—that that would dominate over bigger issues is very harmful.”

Recalling this saying brought this thought to my informant’s mind:

“It’s interesting to think of how many death images there are. You have a deadline, things are killed, yeah…”

This saying speaks to the universal human interest in violence, and the way in which news outlets have adapted to meet that morbid curiosity. Furthermore, “If it bleeds, it leads” is short, unfeeling, and declarative. It’s an example of the cynical, tough-talking, macho atmosphere that my informant describes pervading newsrooms in America. I’m not surprised that she recalled this saying with a laugh. It probably reminds her of the intensity of her old journalist friends and the environment in which they worked. This phrase also speaks to the hardening of the journalist. They encounter a lot of awful things in this world, and must get used to it in order to write about them objectively. There’s also something morbidly funny about this phrase, and my mother laughed when recalling it. Reporters have to develop a sense of humor about things if they are going to, day in and day out, face and report on the cruelty of the world.