As many know, Google News collects articles on the latest events from scores of online publications. It determines its headlining items by computer algorithms that account for how frequently a story appears online. Not surprisingly, “Top Stories” lists the “juiciest” pieces of the day—at least in SEO terms.
At one point on Monday, the number one story on Google News had to do with the domestic violence arrest of Aron Ralston, the man who famously severed his own arm in order to escape from a boulder that had pinned him in a Utah canyon. Ralston wrote a book about his tribulation; it led to the Oscar-nominated “127 Hours,” starring James Franco. His fame explains why news of his Denver arrest appeared so prominently on Google News and other current events outlets.
Reason to Pause
Anyone who had time to read past the domestic violence headline learned that both Ralston and his alleged victim (his girlfriend and the mother of his child) had been arrested in relation to the dispute in question. That caused this criminal law blogger to raise an eyebrow: It’s not necessarily uncommon for the police to arrest both parties to a domestic dispute, but it’s noteworthy. It suggests that there may be more to the events in question than the allegation—and in this case, the headlines—would suggest.
At about 4:00 p.m. Pacific time on Monday, when making the Google News rounds, I noticed that the initial Ralston entry was gone from Top Stories. Another one showed up toward the bottom of the page, under the “U.S.” section. This one indicated that prosecutors had decided not to file charges against the prominent hiker. (Charges were still pending against his girlfriend.)
The “Domestic Violence Charges Dropped…” theme had a brief foray toward the top of Google News, but didn’t show any lasting power. By the end of the business day, it was relegated to the footnote-like “Most popular” section.
Not So Juicy
The Ralston domestic violence stories rose and fell just like any other narrative. We’re interested in the lurid and scandalous—until they stop being such. While this form of curiosity may be endemic to our nature (witness the freeway rubbernecking phenomenon), it’s too bad.
Sure, occasionally there’s the outrageous false accusation of the Duke lacrosse variety, but it seems more often than not that the allegation gets way more play than the dismissal. If there isn’t an all-out exoneration, as is regularly the case when the prosecution simply drops charges or decides not to file, a cloud of suspicion hangs over the accused indefinitely. That’s too bad for people like Aron Ralston, who may have done nothing wrong.