March 12, 2013

Stories about bullying often follow a predictable narrative with a “villain v. victim” arc that leaves little room for nuance.

Slate’s Emily Bazelon raised this issue on Monday in her South by Southwest talk, “Digital Drama: Growing up in the Age of Facebook.” Bazelon, who wrote a just-released book about bullying called “Sticks and Stones,” was joined by The New York Times’ Bill Keller, researcher Danah Boyd, and MTV’s Jason Rzepka.

Together, they talked about how journalists can capture the complexities of bullying.

Ask: Is this really bullying?

One of the problems with words like “bullying” and “cyberbullying” is that they mean different things to different people.

“Scholarly definitions of bullying often differ from what the public thinks,” Boyd said. “Bullying becomes synonymous, especially among adults, with all forms of meanness and cruelty.”

While researching bullying, Boyd found that adults were quick to define rude behavior as bullying. Children, meanwhile, didn’t see it that way.

“Young people,” she said, “kept telling us over and over again, ‘bullying really isn’t a problem; that’s a middle school thing. Oh, but gossip and drama — oh my gosh, we have so much of that.'”

Part of the challenge for journalists, then, is figuring out what word to use – and refraining from overusing the word “bullying.”

“When you define all meanness as bullying,” Bazelon said, “it seems like an intractable problem.”

Avoid sensationalistic headlines, tweets

The panelists said journalists use the word “bullying” too much.

Journalists’ use of the word has created “an attention economy,” Boyd said. “They put so much monetization around grabbing people’s attention with sensationalist headlines and juicy tweets.”

This has been especially true in the past couple of years with the rise of “cyberbullying.”

“When cyberbullying appeared on the scene in 2009 there were a lot of alarmist stories saying that there was this new monster on the block,” Bazelon said. “In fact, there is no epidemic of bullying; the rates of bullying have been pretty consistent.”

Keller agreed that the media often sensationalize stories about bullying.

“I should feel obliged to leap up to the defense of media, but actually I don’t,” he said. “The fundamental problems are not created by the digital age; they’re inherent in what we do. There is a tendency in media to oversimplify. Stories require protagonists and antagonists, and victims and villains, and we sometimes strain to supply them.” It’s much easier, for instance, to report a generalized “victim v. villain” narrative than it is to look into the nuances that differentiate each bullying case.

Keller said he also thinks journalists jump on bullying stories because of the “quest for the trend.”

“Journalists like to be able to say something is a trend because that makes it important and that makes it go to the front page or the home page.”

Report before drawing conclusions

Journalists have a tendency to prematurely draw conclusions in stories about bullying. Bazelon alluded to this when talking about Tyler Clementi — the Rutgers University student who committed suicide after his roommate tweeted that he had seen Clementi kiss another man via his Webcam.

At the time, news organizations reported that the tweet caused Clementi to commit suicide. Journalists and their audiences want to make sense of tragedies, but the question that’s hardest to answer is “why?” Trying to answer it when we haven’t done much reporting can lead us to make assumptions and draw inaccurate conclusions.

“Sometimes in stories there’s this very quick move from cause to effect … We see this direct line from texting or cyberbullying to blaming those phenomena,” Bazelon said. “It’s misleading and does a disservice to the complexity when we try to make everything fit into this narrative.” She praised Ian Parker for his in-depth New Yorker story about Clementi, which shows the complexities of suicide and bullying.

Bazelon acknowledged the challenges of reporting on bullying. “I often struggle between the choice of fearing I’m going to be wrong and taking too long to form an opinion,” she said. “I also think the 24/7 news cycle and incredible speed of the Internet has really exacerbated this.”

Deeply report both sides of the story

One of the problems with bullying situations is that people — particularly the media and schools — are quick to assign blame.

Boyd argued that media coverage can make bullies feel vulnerable and victimized: “Kids who are being aggressive,” are often “really hurting.” Instead of getting help, she said, they get punished.

The media doesn’t do a good job of telling that story, though. Instead, journalists tend to portray bullies as villains. Bazelon was reminded of this when reporting on Pheobe Prince, a Massachusetts teenager who committed suicide after being bullied.

Bazelon thought Prince’s high school “must be this really scary, bad place,” based on the stories she had read about the bullies there. But when she visited the school, she realized it was different than she expected.

“That black and white narrative fell apart as I started spending time there,” she said. Bazelon, wrote a three-part series on Prince, learned that the “villains” weren’t all bad, and that the victim wasn’t all good; they were much more complicated than that.

Bazelon asked tough questions while reporting the series, and was at times accused of blaming the victim. “To question the dominant narrative,” she said, “is a risky thing to do.”

Offer context about social media & bullying

Keller, who has three children, believes social media has made it easier for kids to bully one another.

“I think that there is in our society a general increase in meanness, aggression, and polarization, and I do not begin to blame the Internet for that. Rush Limbaugh is a mean son of a bitch and he doesn’t need the Internet to make him a mean son of a bitch,” Keller said. “But there’s something in the nature of social media that rewards partisanship. You tend to hang out with people who think the way you do. Most people don’t hang out in a spectrum of opinion; they hang out in a niche of opinion, and I think that tends to reinforce a kind of closed-mindedness.”

Additionally, he said, anonymity and the immediacy of the Web make people less likely to stop and think before sharing information.

Boyd sees social media as a force for good — particularly when it comes to media coverage. People, she said, can use it to “call out lazy journalists” and “make a challenge to the media to make coverage that’s more nuanced.”

One way to make it more nuanced is to explain how social media affects teenagers’ interactions — and to probe tough questions. How do we help teens deal with bullying, or digital drama, online? What do the words “privacy” and “public” mean to today’s youth? And how do those definitions change from site to site?

Boyd explained that privacy isn’t the opposite of being in public; it’s the ability to have control over one’s social situation. With some sites, privacy is more complicated. Teens understand that Twitter is a public platform, Boyd said. But the frequent privacy shifts on Facebook make it harder to know who can and can’t see your posts.

Boyd said it would be great if all social media sites had built-in alert systems to make teens more aware of who they’re sharing information with (i.e. popups that say “You’re about to share this post with 4,000 people”).

Perhaps those systems could help curb cyberbullying. Ultimately, though, change has to come from people — not technology.

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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