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‘Weird News,’ ‘Dumb Criminals’ and the Media’s Monetization of Human Misery

There’s a cynical local-to-national news pipeline designed to mock the powerless under the guise of “odd” news stories.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.

The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.

Over the past few weeks, there have been dozens of local and national news stories about the case of a Georgia man who allegedly broke into a Taco Bell just past midnight on Christmas morning to eat and seek shelter from a chilly night on the floor of the fast-food restaurant.

The man, reportedly a former employee, also is accused of stealing a “laptop and tablet,” but this wasn’t the focus of these stories. The hook –– and what made this otherwise obscure instance of petty crime national news –– was that breaking into a Taco Bell to eat and sleep is somehow seen as inherently amusing. Outlets such as The New York Post, New York Daily News, and ABC News ran the story, the latter showing the surveillance video of the man with a message on Twitter reading, “Police in Georgia search for man who broke into Taco Bell, made a meal and took a nap.” The tweet received more than 12,000 retweets and invited thousands of glib comments at the man’s expense.

Did any of the outlets that reported on this case ask if the man was homeless or had a history of mental illness or drug abuse? Did these outlets ask if it was wise for the police to engage in a manhunt, using grainy footage of a black man, for such a low-level offense? No. They simply copy and pasted comments from the police and watched the hits roll in.

It’s a familiar script and one that news outlets, local and national, rely on for cheap and easy revenue. “Weird news,” “dumb criminal” stories come across the wires and producers and editors can’t resist the novelty factor. A glance at HuffPost’s “Stupid/Dumb Criminals” tag finds headlines and subheads such as, “Florida Man Breaks Into Jail To See His Friends, Police Say: The suspect was allegedly high on flakka,” and, “Cops Follow Trail Of Macaroni Salad Straight To Robbery Suspects.” ABC 7’s “stupid criminals” tag gives you headlines like, “Clumsy criminal caught on video in Louisiana.” Miami Herald has published a video segment entitled, “Dumb Criminals: Florida Edition.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently ran an AP weekly “weird news” roundup that included both the Taco Bell incident and a story, that also went viral in dozens of outlets, about “2 men accused of gluing winning numbers onto lotto ticket.” 

Viral “weird” and “dumb/stupid criminals” articles—a cousin to the dehumanizing “Florida Man” meme — contribute to a media culture that uncriticially reposts police blotters as news. The first instinct of those who publish them is to gawk rather than humanize, and to overlook difficult questions about why these people are in the circumstances they’re in. 

It may seem like humorless scolding, but the consequences of this type of demonization are real. A key feature of these stories — as seen in follow-up stories about the Taco Bell break-in by The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Fox 5 Atlanta, and several others — is mug shots that spread to hundreds of websites complete with the arrestee’s name. As I’ve reported elsewhere, this process of “mugshot shaming” ruins lives and stains one’s online reputation for decades to come. At the other end of these clickbait stories is a real human being, and to the extent that these are “news,” they are only so because the police see to it that they are.

More than anything, stories of people eating and sleeping in odd places are the end result of a nation that shames poverty and criminalizes homeless people. Stories about people doing bizarre things in public are very likely the byproduct of drug abuse and of mental illness — both of which also are heavily criminalized. When the media does not seek out news but rather has it teed up for them by police blotters, the destitute, people of color, sex workers, and the mentally ill — citizens disproportionately affected by the legal justice system — unfairly become “the news.” 

The most catchy of these stories filters to the top of a viral economy and becomes amusing social media fodder where indifference to human suffering is baked into the business model. A similar phenomon, as Media Matters has documented, occurs in the rightwing media bubble. Shocking local news from Fox and Sinclair affiliates reinforce conservative narratives of out-of-control immigration and runaway vagrancy. Stories that take off on social media are then fed into a national platform like Tucker Carlson’s primetime show where they become points of national conversation.

Any attempt to point out the caustic nature of this media system is often met with the accusation of “taking things too seriously” or “not having a sense of humor.” It’s certainly true that not all “weird news” stories are punching down (many are just silly in nature), but a cursory look at any “weird news” or “dumb/stupid criminal” tags will show many are. 

When editors and reporters see a viral story come across their desk that appears to involve poverty, homelessness, sex work, drug use, or mental health issues, they ought to ask themselves a simple question: Is publishing this going to harm an already criminalized person or population? Is this simply going to invite scorn and mockery? Does a potentially unwell man seeking shelter and food in a Taco Bell really warrant scores of articles and follow-up reports, complete with video and a call to action to help police arrest the man? The answers to these questions are obvious. The willingness for media actors to do something about this obviously horrific genre of reporting is less so.