How the entertainment cycle brings out the best & worst journalism

First something crazy happens. It could be DeAndre Jordan making a big dunk, or Miley Cyrus twerking. On Sunday, it was the first Indian-American woman winning the Miss America pageant.

Second, the Internet reacts. We say this as if we are all in on the joke — the Internet isn’t really a thing that can react; it’s all the people who are on the Internet who are reacting. But actually the Internet can become this uncontrollable beast, because there are too many people creating content on it to take in what they say in any kind of controlled way. So in a way it’s accurate when we say the Internet reacts.

The third step is when the journalists tell us what the people on the Internet are doing. It was about an hour after Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America that BuzzFeed posted a list of a couple dozen tweets under the headline that “A Lot Of People Are Very Upset That An Indian-American Woman Won The Miss America Pageant.”

This creates that proverbial echo chamber. A bunch of people post the BuzzFeed story to their Facebook feed, then pretty soon the morning TV shows and cable-news folks want to talk about the crazy, racist reaction that some people are having in the Twitterverse. Then more people share links to those stories. And even more journalists do pieces on that reaction.

(We’ll be exploring this modern pattern of entertainment journalism in a daylong seminar Thursday at the Kent State Media Ethics Workshop. You can attend in person or watch the live stream, which will be linked to from Poynter.org’s home page.)

By aggregating offensive tweets, BuzzFeed informed the Monday morning conversation — and in response, we saw the worst and the best of modern journalism.

First the worst: There’s nothing wrong with BuzzFeed’s initial list of nasty comments. But when other newsrooms in the country follow their lead, the truth of the story is changed.

Yes, some people reacted with offensive comments. But based on my Twitter feed, a lot of people were celebrating the Miss America moment. One guy created this collage of photos of all the winners, to illustrate how the contest reflects the changing face of America. BuzzFeed called attention to a particular kind of reaction, one that guaranteed a viral response from the audience. That’s what BuzzFeed does — it generates news that’s meant to be shared.

But when major news outlets allow a quickly turned aggregation to frame the story, without first asking significant questions, they do a disservice to their audience. You may think the only way the Internet responded was with racist vitriol, and that’s far from true. Take Reddit user cheapcurry, who posted: “Meet Miss America 2014: Nina Davuluri. The first Indian-American to win the pageant. As a first generation Indian American I cannot be more proud to see another stereotype being broken for the Indian community.”

Too bad no one as powerful as BuzzFeed aggregated the most joyful reactions to Davuluri winning the crown.

Fortunately, the cycle isn’t finished. After things get deafening in the echo chamber, the thoughtful commentary starts to flow. And that’s when we get to see the best of modern journalism.

These are bloggers and columnists who have something to say about this crazy thing that people are talking about. There is usually a first wave, then a second wave and sometimes even a third wave of such commentary. Many of these thoughtful ideas originate with professional newsrooms because the people writing them are paid journalists, or thoughtful people whose opinions have been solicited and encouraged by editors paid to curate such ideas. Other such reactions come from people who’ve used blogs and other self-publishing platforms to join the conversation. This is the commentary that will get you to think more deeply about what has happened and what it means.

The first of these columns are just starting to trickle in — take this one posted by Lynn Chen, who writes on the blog Thick Dumpling Skin.

The best of these thoughts will also go viral, although maybe not to the extent as that first BuzzFeed piece.

For journalism to survive in this environment, professionals need to minimize the roar in the echo chamber and let the insightful revelations be heard. So how do you do that? For one thing, stop repeating what you hear on social media just because it has the hallmarks of a story about to go viral. Instead, elevate the pursuit of the truth.

Does it matter that the first Indian-American woman was crowned Miss America? Of course, but not just because some people made horrid comments on Twitter. There are other, deeper stories to tell, starting with what the news says about the changing face of American beauty.

“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here.

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  • http://wadeonbirmingham.com/ Wade Kwon

    Good essay. Thoughtful.

  • http://www.cultureblaze.com/ Candace Amos

    Truth!