30 years ago this year, Don Henley topped the charts with a rant put to music called “Dirty Laundry.” Henley wrote and performed it to express his disgust with TV news and its sensational style.
Recently, when analyzing reaction to the death of Dick Clark, I was reminded of one simple line from the song – “It’s interesting when people die, give us dirty laundry.” That pretty much sums up a phenomenon that may have irked Henley when watching TV in 1982 but is a fact of life in 2012, particularly on social media.
Regular social media users can attest, nothing “lights up a feed” like a celebrity death. Whether it’s an icon like Clark or a celebrity that most previously wouldn’t have been able to identify as dead or alive, news of a celebrity death spreads instantly on social media and elicits reaction like no other content on the Web.
We even see it on this blog. When Don Tanner (not Henley) has written about the legacies of Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse or Whitney Houston, our traffic picks up. In the hours after a celebrity death, it’s often hard to find much else on Twitter or Facebook, regardless of your connections.
I often hear from clients and others who want to know why traditional media focuses so much on death and celebrities. Well, combine the two and see what happens on social media, with the vast majority of content created and distributed by consumers, not by media organizations.
As someone who, as Henley sang, once made “my living off the evening news,” I have seen instances where news decisions that are really made to save money or drive quick ratings are rationalized by “it’s what people want.” But, in this case, human nature proves that when we, as a society, look in the mirror, we see a culture that really believes “it’s interesting when people die – give us dirty laundry.”