The Vital Remains Cop Story Is Everything That Is Dumb About “News” In The Clickbait Era

HEY! DID YOU ALL HEAR ABOUT THE COP WHO SUNG WITH VITAL REMAINS AND GOT FIRED??? Of course you did. We all did. If you listen to heavy music, follow

8 years ago


Of course you did. We all did. If you listen to heavy music, follow any metal or heavy music websites, or have any friends on social media who do either of these, more likely than not you were exposed to this story that unfolded over the past week. On the slight off-chance you were not, however, here’s the gist of it. Andrew Ricks, a police officer in Sanford County, FL, was filmed at a concert for death metal band Vital Remains (the same band who were in the news earlier this year for getting into a fight with a venue owner over a cross hanging on a wall). He was in full uniform at the time and joined the band on stage as they performed “Dechristianize,” and joined them in the song’s intro of “Let The Killing Begin.” The video was posted online and shared by Lambgoat, the launching pad for many a viral story over the years. From there it quickly made its way to the Sanford County Police Department, and within a couple of days it was reported that Ricks was “fired.”

Then the articles and outrage came. Oh, did it come. Metal Injection, Metalsucks, Loudwire, Blabbermouth, Noisey, and many others all jumped on this story, seemingly tripping over themselves as they smelled the sweet scent of fresh clicks. Even non-metal or music news sources like CBS and USA Today saw the story and wanted a piece of the action. Readers and metal fans went apoplectic at what they saw as an act of prejudice against their music and an act of hypocrisy when so many acts of discrimination and violence go unpunished. It had all the pieces of a perfect outrage narrative. The story was simple, the message seemed clear, and it was relevant to other current events and topics that elicit incredibly strong opinions and reactions.

Until, of course, it wasn’t.

The truth of the Vital Remains cop story revealed the worst thing a news story could be; it was boring.

As the story blew up and continue to spread, more details behind Ricks’ firing came to light, and the whole thing quickly became more complicated. According to the SCPD chief Cecil E Smith, Ricks had handed in his resignation letter on October 30, citing a desire to have more time with his children, and the resignation was set to take effect on November 20, one week after the incident in question and only two days after Ricks was fired. Smith did reveal that there had been community complaints about the incident that played a part in them relieving him of his duties earlier than expected, but he stressed that there were other factors at play as well and that had Ricks not already been on his way out the worst that would have happened to him would have been some internal disciplinary action.

“For folks to believe that he was terminated because of the circumstances isn’t true,” Chief Smith said. “What would have probably happened if Officer Ricks had remained on the job, is that we would have completed the internal investigation, for which he would have most likely received some form of discipline.”
Ricks had violated other policies as well, Smith said. Most importantly, he said, Ricks had disobeyed the requirement to have his body camera turned on while doing community contacts. Ricks had also placed a training officer in a situation that the latter was not equipped to handle, the chief claimed.

If you take him largely at his word (which, in this very specific case, there really isn’t much reason not to), what you’re left with is this: a cop decided he no longer wanted to be a cop, handed in his resignation, decided to act loose with policies and regulations in his final week, and was let go two days earlier than expected, possibly as a small act of everyday political appeasement. Hardly the stuff of flashy headlines and Facebook sharing. “POLICE OFFICER LET GO TWO DAYS EARLY FOR CAUSING SLIGHT PR HEADACHE FOR DEPARTMENT” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “COP FIRED FOR SINGING HEAVY METAL!!!”

In the age of clickbait, it’s less important how meaningful or vetted a story is than how strong a reaction it’s likely to elicit.

Here’s where the problem really lies though. News and entertainment sites that live and die by amassing clicks, shares, and engagement need stories like this in order to survive. They need to find something, anything that can cause a strong reaction from people, enough so that they will want to comment on it and share with all of their friends. What gets the biggest return on investment though by far is anger and outrage. Sure, there are other kinds of emotions that can help make a story or article go viral — excitement, shock, amusement, whatever the combination of emotions is upon seeing an adorable animal do an adorable thing — but none are as potent as anger. So it’s not surprising that so many websites see these bits of news and view them as an opportunity to take advantage of. And it’s not surprising that they would seek to shape a narrative around it that will make it more likely to create an outrage cycle (of which I am knowingly participating in at this moment as someone who is “outraged by the outrage”).

None of this is news or a closely-guarded secret. We all know why these pieces exist. They provide a reliable source of ad revenue – one that many sites will argue allows them to write more substantive, thoughtful, and useful articles that are far less likely to amass many clicks or shares – they’re relatively easy and quick to write up and get out (this is hitting particularly hard right now given that I’ve given most of my evening to writing this), and, once again, people read them, even as they continue to rail against exactly this kind of content in abstract.

It’s a sickness and a vicious cycle we’re unlikely to break anytime soon, certainly not as long as ad-revenue based news/media models are still king. And it’s unfortunate because it just results in a dumbing down of that news and media. Particularly in areas that straddle the line between the worlds of news and entertainment such as music, it’s not particularly difficult for writers who cover news pertaining to their field to be thought of loosely as “journalists.” The lines between blogger, entertainment writer, and journalist have been fading for years to the point where trying to make any hard distinctions between them is near impossible (Just to make it clear though, I in no way consider myself to be a journalist, nor do I personally consider most writers on similar sites and blogs to be. I cannot say how those people feel though.). There are no gatekeepers to information anymore, and with it diminishing reason to think about reporting and relaying information in a way suitable to any particular standard other than what’s likely to do well.

The Vital Remains cop story is utterly unimportant. It was unimportant even before all the facts were known. But on face value it could strike a nerve, and that’s all it took to be deemed worthy of print.

Clickbait in itself is annoying, if not relatively harmless. Using other issues to present an illusion of validity and importance to clickbait is disingenuous at best and actively harmful to more meaningful conversations at worst.

What’s particularly irksome about this story and how other websites have handled this, however, is how they’ve jockeyed and attached two issues/causes to it that they know would guarantee these posts’ success at garnering views and reactions, regardless of how relevant either of them really are. The first, which is the perpetual chip many metalheads have on their shoulders about them and their music not being accepted to the point of actively punished by society, is a bit easier to excuse. Public misconceptions about the music and its artists/fans still persist, and this all happened the same week that video of the Christian pastor directly implying that listening to metal was the real reason behind the death of the victims of the terrorist attack at The Bataclan in Paris (even though Eagles of Death Metal aren’t, you know, metal) made the rounds. If you believe that the only reason Andrew Ricks was let go early was because he participated in a metal concert and that people were so offended specifically by it being metal that they mounted pressure on the police department to fire him, then it would be understandable why this story would hit a particular chord of anger for you.

Would the same thing have happened had Ricks been filmed singing at a pop or country show? Probably not. But what if it had been hip-hop? What about hardcore? Furthermore, isn’t it reasonable for a police department to not take too kindly to having video proof of one of their officers shouting “Let the killing begin!” in almost any situation? The SCPD may have been influenced by the ignorant complaints of the public in moving Ricks’ official severance up, but if it wasn’t metal it surely would have been something else. The idea that metalheads are a uniquely-maligned group of people in society (American society in particular) is an overwrought train of thought that too many people give far too much weight to, and websites using that as their primary angle to elicit rage from their users is a stupidly transparent and disingenuous move on their part.

Far less excusable is using the incident as a loose segue and connection to the very real issues of police brutality and discrimination. I’ve seen both writers and readers use this story as a way to bash police, transforming it into a story demonstrating the hypocrisy of cops not being punished for other, more serious acts. Many places have noted that this whole thing took place in the same town that Trayvon Martin was from, making the connection to the lack of initiative and action the department took against George Zimmerman in the wake of his killing Martin. The Noisey article was the worst offender of connecting this to police brutality though, essentially turning their article on Ricks’ firing into just a straight-up anti-police screed:

Yes, definitely, this public display of a cop enjoying music like a normal human, that is what’s eroding the bond between the police and the community. Not, you know, all of the excessive brutality and long, unchecked history of racial discrimination. Glad we’ve identified the problem and are getting all of these dangerous metal enthusiast cops off the streets.
Just out of curiosity, let’s check in on some other cops in Florida and see how they’re doing this month…
Here’s an officer in Boynton accused of raping a waitress on the hood of his patrol car at gunpoint. He was acquitted.
Two officers in Orlando were caught on video repeatedly kicking a tasering a man. They won’t be charged.
Oh, and this officer in Ft. Lauderdale, who was scheduled to be honored at a Mothers Against Drunk Driving conference, showed up to collect his award drunk and stripped down to his underwear. He received the brutal punishment of a day’s suspension and had to write a letter of apology to the police chief.

It’s not that any of this is factually incorrect on face-value. But it has NOTHING, zero, zilch to do with this actual story! The two have zero connection. There is no line to draw between Andrew Ricks being let go and the incidents the author describes. In fact, you may recall that the police chief specifically cited Ricks not having his body-cam turned on at the show as a contributing factor to their action against him. It’d be more excusable if the author took the route of saying “Hey, this story that people are paying a lot of attention to is kind of dumb and pointless, but meanwhile here are some real stories concerning police that you should be paying attention to and trying to do something about instead!” But that’s not what this is. This is someone saying, “You should care about this particular story and get mad about it because something something police brutality! Don’t forget to share!”

The problem with this isn’t that police brutality isn’t a very serious issue that warrants serious discussion and action. The problem is that attaching this very serious issue to something that is not at all serious or important automatically gives the very serious thing less weight and credibility. Co-opting police brutality and discrimination for the sake of getting people to read about and riled up about a single cop in Florida who was on his way out and made an ill-advised (if ultimately completely harmless) choice that led to him being pushed out a little early does an absolute disservice to meaningful conversation about police brutality and discrimination. It cheapens it, and knowingly doing so for the sake of an article is not just disingenuous: it’s bullshit. It’s actively counter-productive, and it represents some of the worst that this kind of “journalism” offers.

The biggest problem isn’t with the “Vital Remains cop” story itself. The problem is that there are too many “Vital Remains cop” stories out there.

Ultimately, I’m almost certainly giving far too much weight and attention to a story here that I write multiple times above is not important and worth the attention it received. And if this were an isolated incident it’s unlikely that I would have written all of this. But it’s not. This is just the latest in a long string of stories that take advantage of and abuse readers’ intentions and intelligence for sake of some ad revenue. This isn’t a “wake up, sheeple!” moment. This shouldn’t be news to anyone. We all say we hate this stuff and lambast the sites who are the worst perpetrators, but ultimately it makes little difference because we continue to fall for it time and time again. Until the click-based overlord is taken down the cycle won’t be broken. But next time you see a story or article that makes you mad and makes you want to comment on it or share it to express your anger, take an extra few seconds to think about why it’s making you mad and whether it’s worth it.

Then again, you could always just write a 2,000+ word essay about it.


Nick Cusworth

Published 8 years ago