People Are Mad About Response Journalism

Journalism is under siege.

Public trust in the media — the very, very dishonest media, some have said — is at an all-time low. Desperate Estonians are producing fake news to earn a quick kroon while misinforming millions in the U.S. And though dozens of newspapers and magazines reported spikes in paid subscriptions last fall, economics remain unfriendly to the Fourth Estate.

Indeed, it’s a sad state of affairs for a crucial cog in our democracy. But the media isn’t entirely blameless.

I work in public relations, but you won’t meet a more ardent defender of journalism. (Not “but” — and. The notion that working in PR precludes you from appreciating journalism is completely asinine.) Before I joined Fast Horse in 2010, I was a journalist. I started a student newspaper in eighth grade, wrote a weekly column for four years of high school and then edited the college newspaper where I wrote more than 500 articles. I cut my teeth at the Mankato Free Press as a stringer, and then as a beat reporter for a minor-league baseball team. I graduated college during the Great Recession when no company was hiring, especially newspapers, so I left journalism for PR. To this very day, I love journalism so much I listen to podcasts about journalism and read news articles about journalism. I literally consume journalism about journalism.

It’s no secret that far too many journalists (especially younger ones) are overworked, underpaid and mired in the muck of online media, where story quotas leave them chained to the desk to synthesize, polarize and sensationalize. They are only commended for their work when stories create measurable spikes in readership and engagement, and therefore, there’s an incentive to evoke a strong response. Out of these conditions, the ability to enrage is rewarded more than the ability to inform.

Think about it: As media consumers, we are more likely to share a story to which we emotionally respond than to share a story that is simply informative. Attaining understanding is a solitary act. But when we as media consumers have a strong emotional response, we are wired to share that emotion with others in hope they can empathize with the way it makes us feel. Misery isn’t the only emotion that loves company. So does happiness, bitterness and most certainly anger. For example, consider the Senate confirmation of new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and how the story has generated impassioned responses that have monopolized social-media feeds for nearly two weeks.

There is a tendency in modern journalism to seek and report emotional responses to an event rather than report on the event itself. This practice makes little sense, because absent a monolithic readership, there is no such thing as a truly emotional consensus. However, you wouldn’t know it based on the number of headlines nowadays that begin with People are mad.

And as a PR hack, here is where journalists can glean a thing or two:

On a planet of more than seven billion humans, “people” can either be quantified as two of them or all of them. Using a handful of cherry-picked tweets or Reddit comments to suggest the scale of a response is completely misleading and blatant narrative bias.

In PR, we constantly use analytical tools to measure sentiment. And while Twitter is hardly reflective of the general population, it can serve as a viable sample. However, evidence of how a massive group is feeling should be weighted against the size of the group overall and not by a few tweets. “People” is imprecise. Show which percentage of people feel a certain way.

As a matter of practice, journalists should consider the import of any piece about emotional reaction by asking this very simple question: Is there demonstrable news value in the item or event to which the public is reacting? A great example is coverage of some of the uglier responses to Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime performance. Terrible people on Twitter (and surely beyond) body-shamed the performer for having not six-pack abs but instead a very fit human person’s body. Here’s an example headline from a prominent men’s publication:

Remove the reactionary angle and the story literally becomes “Lady Gaga does not have six-pack abs.” Doesn’t quite serve the public interest, does it? Add the reactionary angle and it feels ostensibly less icky, right? The effect is that readers will be more compelled to study Lady Gaga’s stomach and form their own opinion, which only perpetuates a completely unnecessary and cruel dialogue. Because journalism?

Constructing a false equivalency does not convey objectivity. It conveys a false narrative. Journalism students everywhere are taught to speak with parties on both sides of an issue or debate. Interview the police officer and the attorney for the convicted. Interview the winning coach and the losing coach. Interview the city council member and the concerned citizen. This mistakenly translates to response coverage when journalists illustrate one side of an argument with a handful of tweets, and then the other with another handful of tweets. (Here’s a good example.) This suggests the conversation is split in perfectly even balance. The only thing as rare as emotional consensus is a absolute symmetry between opposing opinions. Some people feel this way, and some people feel that way is almost always a gross oversimplification. Embrace nuance.

Otherwise, some people will be mad.