Mayhem, death not the whole picture

June 25, 2011|Stuart Samuels

On any given day, a casual look at The Herald-Mail's most-viewed stories on its website has two constants — mayhem and death.

Witness, if you will, the top 10 most-viewed stories on June 14, a day chosen at random:

  1.  Peace order application paints McPeak as a stalker
  2.  Williamsport man killed in Frederick Street motorcycle accident
  3.  Authorities continue searching for inmate
  4.  18-wheeler flipped over at I-81 and I-70
  5.  Michael Patrick Considine, 29
  6.  Driver died before hitting house, coroner says
  7.  Boy hurt in ATV accident
  8.  Donald E. Palmer Jr., 76
  9.  Hagerstown area woman remains in critical condition Sunday morning
  10.  Boy hurt in ATV accident

That day was hardly abnormal. On most days, mayhem, whether it is crime, vehicle accidents or fires, and obituaries consistently draw the most hits, or readers. In fact, some stories appear on the list more than once, as new information is developed during the day.

If you doubt that, try tracking the most-read items for a week.

Why? Is it morbid fascination? Maybe. Or, perhaps, people just want to know about the danger that lurks in their community. And, certainly for older residents, it is important to know when old friends or acquaintances pass on.

Does it mean that readers are not interested in more positive stories that occur in their community, such as the Special Olympics torch run, community arts fundraisers, features about schools and, most importantly, county and city government actions that can affect their pocketbooks? Not necessarily.

However, if the editors of this and other newspapers were interested only in "selling newspapers" or driving readers to the website, as media critics have groused for years, then the front page would be a never-ending litany of death and destruction, day in, day out.

As it is, most newspapers try very hard not to sensationalize the news, or exploit tragedy, especially in headlines. If anything, we at times underplay some news because it is inherently sensational enough on its own.

But newspapers have a larger obligation to hold a mirror up to the communities they cover to provide news about the good, the bad and, sometimes unfortunately, the ugly.

Editors at The Herald-Mail, in a surprisingly democratic process, debate what should be on the front page every day, trying to come up with a mix of stories that reflects the most important news of the day — even if it includes what seems like a boring government story or catches someone doing something right, like helping his or her neighbors.

The key is perspective. If all we ran on the front page were stories that people seem to want to read the most based on web metrics, it would paint a wildly distorted picture of life in Hagerstown and Washington County.  

While crime, especially violent crime, is a concern everywhere, Hagerstown is not Baltimore or Washington, D.C., where crime seems to be endemic at times.

In fact, according to the third annual ranking of the top 20 "Most Secure U.S. Places to Live" by the Farmers Insurance Group of Companies, the Hagerstown and Martinsburg, W.Va., area ranked No. 14 nationwide among mid-sized cities — those regions with a total of between 150,000 and 500,000 residents, collated for the purposes of the survey.

The rankings factored in crime statistics, unemployment, environmental risks, terrorism threats, natural disasters and extreme weather, according to an April news release from the insurer. One presumes, as an insurance company awash in actuarial data, Farmers must have a fairly accurate perspective — especially since it has to pay claims on many of life's disasters, natural and manmade.

So if you are a big fan of breaking local mayhem news, don't shake your head every day and say that the Tri-State area is going to hell in a handbasket. It just might seem that way. If you read all the stories on our website and/or in this newspaper every day, you'll see that.

Stuart Samuels is night city editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2336, or by email at

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