Why Aren't News Sites Better Designed for Tragedies?

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They're great at sharing news. They're much less great at sharing heartbreak.

Buzzfeed has a thorough, helpful, heartbreaking article on the Newtown shootings. It's a straightforward news story -- a collection of information about the slaying of more than 20 people, 18 of them young children -- and it is told with the kind of hushed gravity that you'd want and expect when you're being told about tragedy.

Displayed on its page, however, that article looks like this:

Screen Shot 2012-12-14 at 3.35.43 PM.png

So, visually, we're getting: At Least 26 Dead. And also: the 32 Man-Candiest Moments. And also: 10 Starring Actors. And also: 1 Ukelele. And also: 1 Grumpy Cat. And all of those are jumbled together, awkwardly, under the auspices of "social news."

This kind of thing, of course, is not unique to Buzzfeed: It is, in some form, what all news sites (and news outlets, for that matter) do when they're serving up the news: They mix the good with the bad, the cheeky with the serious, the hard news with the soft, the Entertainment with the Sports with the Style with the Political Commentary. The fluidity of those categories is, and has always been, a reflection of a messy world -- one that refuses, in practice and pretty much on principle, to be labeled.

So in that context, on that principle, the 26 Murdered People should totally be able to stand next to the 32 Man-Candiest Moments in the same little section of the Internet. And we readers should be able to see the headline "At Least 26 Dead After Shooting At Connecticut Elementary School" perched next to icons that indicate "hot buzz" and "cute" -- not to mention, in the nav bar above, the Buzzfeed classics "LOL" and "OMG" and "WTF" -- without the proximity being too problematic for us. The world sucks and is awesome in often equal measure, and our newsgathering reflects that. As it should.

But it's hard not to see "Dead/Shooting/School" next to "LOL/OMG/WTF" without cringing just a little bit. Principles and logic and everything else notwithstanding. News may be varied -- and human experience may be varied -- but there are occasions when it's nice not to be reminded of the confluence. Presented a story that buckles under the weight of its own senseless tragedy, it's disconcerting to see its summary surrounded by naked dudes and meme-y cats and an icon informing you that Buzzfeed's take on the tragedy is "now buzzing."

Again, not unique to Buzzfeed -- this kind of awkward abutment happens with most any site that designates itself as a purveyor of "social news." Which is to say, it happens with most any news site. But it's especially evident -- and today, in particular -- on Buzzfeed. And that has very little to do, actually, with Buzzfeed as a gatherer of news. But it has very much to do with Buzzfeed as a presenter of news. Newsgathering, yes, when you're talking about general-interest news sites, reflects the breadth of human experience; it doesn't follow, though, that news site design needs to reflect, unilaterally, the same thing. 

The Newtown news -- its news in the general sense, and its news in the narrower sense of the journalism products that reported it to the world -- make me long for design that meets the demands of tragedy: a page that is visually calm, and tonally grave, and generally suited to its subject matter. It makes me wish that news sites, just as they divide their content by topic, would divide it, as well, by tone. It makes me wish for a specialized page layout devoid of share buttons and "don't miss" sections and the other accoutrements of shareable news -- one that exists not to entice, but to inform. 

There are many (many, many) arguments against that kind of page design, most of them having to do with the fact that news is a business as much as it is a public service. One argument in its favor, however -- and the only argument that makes much sense to me right now -- is this: Many people were murdered today. And I'd rather not learn about their deaths while gazing at Man Candy.  

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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