When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on

Tragedy. It was drilled, nay virtually beaten, into us at journalism school that tragic was an almost utterly redundant adjective, especially when taken in the context of death.

Do you really need to call a death tragic? Aren’t all deaths [1] in some way inherently tragic [2]? And if you’re describing a death as tragic, doesn’t that imply there’s an opposite somewhere, a death that will be reported that isn’t tragic [3]? Tragic, we were told, was a bad, lazy, unnecessary word that took up precious copy space.

That’s stuck with me ever since. Clearly it was never drilled, nay beaten, into other journalists. Nearly every other week I’ve read some newspaper, online news source, or heard a radio or TV journalist describe a death, or other event [4] , as tragic.

It irritates, it irks, and it makes me mildly annoyed they’re debasing what is actually quite a rich word.

Certainly death is sad. Sartre once remarked it was the most inconsiderate thing a person could do, as it reminded others of their own mortality. Most deaths will affect somebody, and if the deceased expired alone then that in itself comes with a tinge of sadness.

But not matter how sad or upsetting the deaths are, the vast majority, even the unusual ones, the ones that make it into the papers, the ones that prompt outrage from the Mail or visual necrophilia from the Express, are not tragic. A certain amount of pathos may be involved, yes, but tragedy? Often not.

Modern tragedy may have altered somewhat since Aristotle but certainly bears his influence, and Shakespeare’s tragedies certainly have a lot of basis for modern usage of the word in its proper sense. Arthur Miller had a fine sense of tragedy, as did Strindberg’s Miss Julie [5]. In film, Jake LaMotta’s decline in Raging Bull definitely classifies as a tragedy [6]. Sean Penn’s underrated The Pledge always struck me as tragic in many senses. You want examples of tragedy; it’s not hard to find in the arts.

Where it is a lot harder to find is in the pages of a newspaper, on on a broadcast news bulletin. There’s a lot of bad news, but that’s the staple of news anyway. Depressing, bleak, worrying, upsetting, sad. All adjectives that could be used to describe the vast majority of stories, but not tragic.

If a father dies in a car crash, leaving behind a twentysomething widow and two young sons, that is sad but unless there was some great character defect, or higher power that brought him down, then his death is definitely not tragic. If he was a Schumacher-esque racing drive obsessed with getting the perfect lap around a circuit, but crashed in the process then that may come closer. A simple road accident. My condolences, but his death doesn’t qualify.

Tragic and tragedy, to me, will remain lazy words that, when used in journalism, have absolutely zero meaning. Take the top-line of:

“An entire community has expressed its shock at the death of a popular local teenager who was stabbed for his bus fare home.”

Do we need the word tragic here? We can get the sense of sadness in the sentence without having to resort to the word. And unless there are underlying circumstances or flaws in the teen’s character that lead to his death, tragedy seems a somewhat crass word to use. Another rule of thumb I had drilled, nay beaten, into me was the more adjectives you find yourself using, the weaker the story is.

Also, by overemphasising the tragic, what will sub-editors do when a genuine tragedy comes along, other than reach for their thesaurus? Because somehow tragic won’t quite seem to do the story justice in that case. And that, to me, is a little bit of a tragedy.
[1] Except Thatcher’s.

[2] No.

[3] Like I say, Thatcher.

[4] But usually a death. There are a lot of them around at this time of year.

[5] I would cite more Strindberg plays but I only read Miss Julie properly, and that was enough for me. Utterly bloody depressing. Some people think Chekhov is depressing. I actually find Chekhov quite entertaining, with a lot of black humour. No, for utter bleakness, Strindberg, for me, is your man.

[6] And a lot of Scorsese’s canon.


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March 2007
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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com

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