There’s an old, callous journalistic proverb on news judgment: “If it bleeds, it leads.” In the hierarchy of story promotion, in other words, violence takes precedence. Of course, on the Internet, our attention is not beholden to the design of a newspaper’s front page; we can let our attention wander where it will. But it seems it’s still wandering towards murder.
The website Longform recently published its annual roundup of the best stories of 2015, and of the 10 stories on its “Most Clicked” list, seven are about murder. (And more than seven are violent: The top story doesn’t contain any murder, but it’s about a man who committed arson and sexual assault and led police on a six-week-long manhunt.)
And this isn't just a 2015 trend: “Since we started Longform, stories about sex or murder—not to mention stories about sex and murder—have always been the most popular,” Max Linsky, a co-founder of Longform, told me in an email. “Even when it’s longform, it’s still the Internet.”
The Internet certainly offers nonstop access to gory stories, but people have been fascinated by killers far longer than they've had the ability to Google them.
“Killing people has been big entertainment since the losers of gladiatorial battle and adherents to Christianity were eaten by lions in the Colosseum of Ancient Rome in front of audiences of tens of thousands,” Peter Morall writes in his book Murder and Society. “Our lust for gore seems to be unabated. Two thousand years later, murder can still be relished ‘by proxy.’”