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The Widow by Fiona Barton: Journalism as Sensationalism or Sociology?

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I probably wouldn't have read Fiona Barton's The Widow, had not one of the women in a book discussion group I lead found herself faced with it shortly after the death of her husband four years ago. She was visiting her daughter in the aftermath, and the young woman suggested she check out the reading group in the library nearest her home. My friend did, only to discover that The Widow was the reading for that month. She apparently was a little shaken but went to the discussion anyway, and came away pleased: the widow in the story was completely different from herself, and, it seems, her terms of reference were shaken a bit, in a good way

Not that the story is an easy one. Jean's husband has recently died, and Kate, an aggressive reporter for a London newspaper, wants to get her to tell the inside story on the man's involvement in the disappearance of a toddler a few years before. Glen, who clearly is a child-pornography addict, has been cleared of the crime because the case was thrown out of court on a technicality. He even wins a settlement for wrongful arrest. But both Kate and the detective investigating the case are still suspicious, and so they close in on Jean after Glen's death, ready to get the real story.

Barton, a former reporter who probably has a lot in common with Kate, tells the tale skillfully, keeping us off balance until the end. She also shows a face of sensational journalism that is both very interesting and repugnant. Paying people for exclusive interviews is common in the UK, although not in North America. (Here paying for a story is more likely a way to kill it, as witness the way the National Inquirer bought Stormy Daniels' tale of her tryst with Donald Trump and then sat on it.) Kate may want to bring to light the truth about the crime in hopes that it will protect other children, but she also wants to make a media splash for her newspaper.

That kind of dogged reporting can be valuable for a society: The Globe and Mail's incessant harping on the SNC-Lavalin case is a Canadian case in point. So is the continued surveillance of the Trump administration by The New York Times and the Washington Post. The question is: would resources expended in pursuing sensational interviews be better spent going after corruption and systemic wrong-doing?

Probably, although I'm reminded of a story one of my profs in J School told about a celebrated murder case in the 1950s. The New York Daily News covered it for weeks with front page stories and many photos that were dubbed too sensational. The New York Times also carried news about it, but didn't receive the same criticism. When the actual number of column inches of coverage in the two papers were compared, however, he found that the NYTimes actually carried more. The difference, he told us, was that what the Daily News carried was considered over-the-top, but the NYTimes was "sociology."

This post first appeared on Not So Solitary A Pleasure: A Blog About Books, please read the originial post: here

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The Widow by Fiona Barton: Journalism as Sensationalism or Sociology?


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