Rewarding stupidity

Passing up the real story for the sensational one is nothing new when it comes to newspaper reporting, but why not give the other side? That's what blogger Ryan Wilson wants to know in today's report.

In yesterday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ray Fittipaldo had a story on how some message board-posting NFL fans used Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle mishap as a, er, vehicle to trash the 24-year-old star quarterback. When I first read the piece, I thought it was interesting -- and I didn't feel Fittipaldo's intent was to pander to those dolts who revel in other people's misfortunes -- but woefully incomplete.

Don't get me wrong, I loved the remarks from Dr. Paul Friday, the director of clinical psychology at UPMC Shady Side, when he described the cringe-worthy comments of some ne'er-do-wells thusly:

"The people who are blogging in Cincinnati, they're the ones whose brains never fully develop," Friday said. "They don't perspectivize human tragedy. They don't learn to think effectively. These people are not normal… We're dealing with the screaming people who are venting. These are elements that are not representative of their communities. They are representatives of their own minds."
But by focusing on those people who were hoping for the worst, Fittipaldo only tells a very small part of the story. What about all the NFL fans who put the value of life above sports and wished Roethlisberger well?

In the five seconds it took me to peruse the internets, I found countless examples of people offering prayers and get well wishes for the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback. At the other end of the spectrum are the Orcs who apparently just got internet access in their subterranean dungeons back in Middle Earth and took this opportunity to post their hate-spewing remarks. But here's the thing: These numbnuts are in the minority in much the same way Cowboys fans were when the Steelers played in Dallas during the 2004 season.

I'm not saying Fittipaldo should have ignored the lunatic fringe, but he could have made it clear in his story that when looking at the larger picture -- a picture that overwhelmingly included well-wishers -- these dudes were exactly that: lunatics and way out on the fringes of reality.

The Pareto Principle states that 80 percent of the consequences stem from 20 percent of the causes and I think this applies here. Eighty percent of the inane comments are due to 20 percent of the internet message board posters who have screws loose. And I'd guess that 20 percent is way too high here; perhaps 1-to-5 percent is more accurate. Whatever the actual number, the point remains the same: It's OK for Fittipaldo to report such stuff, but when the majority of responses are overwhelmingly supportive, isn't that newsworthy too?

It's great to read some doctor tell us that a subset of Bengals fans are off their rockers – it certainly seems more official coming from a guy wearing a lab coat and a stethoscope – but is that really news? I mean, didn't we already know that? Isn't that kinda like a Cincinnati police officer telling us Chris Henry is trying to break the off-season record for most arrests by a professional athlete? Yeah, big whoop. Tell me something I don't know.

Another problem with the story's one-sidedness is that it draws attention to these simpletons. A very large percentage of people don't read blogs or hang out on message boards, and consequently they have no idea such lunacy exists. (Ignorance is bliss, right?) And unlike informing the masses of an impending asteroid striking earth, reporting anonymous Big Ben death wishes serves no useful purpose as far as I can tell, especially when not counterbalanced by the other half of the story -- or in this case, the other 80 percent of the story.

(Now if we could somehow dupe these idiots into holding one of their Die Big Ben, Die! conventions at the asteroid impact site, then we might be on to something. Of course, I shouldn't say too much lest I be accused of having a brain that hasn't fully developed. A charge my wife would readily agree with, by the way.)

And just so we're clear, I have no problem with people giving Big Ben a hard time for not using good judgment, especially now that it looks like he'll be fine. When I found out Roethlisberger could be ready by the preseason, I sent my buddy Andy the following one-sentence email:

I have no idea how this is possible.
To which he responded:
Stupidity is rewarded.
Which precipitated my witty response:
There's still hope for you then.
I don't think anyone would disagree that riding a missile strapped to a bike without a helmet is, in fact, a very stupid thing to do. But wondering aloud why a person chooses to undertake such an endeavor is entirely different than hoping they die a slow and miserable death. I feel ridiculous pointing this out, but for a small subset of fans, sports are a life-or-death, binary situation. Mr. Fittipaldo thought the ravings of a few madmen were more important than the outpouring of support in the wake of Roethlisberger's accident. In fact, he devoted 814 words to it. If his column reflected the sentiments of the general public, 773 words – or roughly 95 percent – should have been about how the value of life transcends any imaginary boundaries created by frivolous sports rivalries.

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