April 8, 2015

In the era of instant news that accompanies readers wherever they go, special attention has been given recently to preserving a blissful state of ignorance around watershed moments in pop culture.

The NCAA men’s basketball championship. The Grammy Awards. The plot twists that define wildly popular TV shows. In each of these cases, a news alert could spoil a pleasurable experience readers might want to experience firsthand. So how do news organizations balance the imperative to inform their audiences with the understanding that readers might want to occasionally remain unaware?

For some outlets, that answer to that question seems to hinge on how they define spoilers. In recent weeks, two major news organizations, The New York Times and The Associated Press, shared public case studies that shed light on their philosophies. In March, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan heard from outraged readers who complained that a Times alert spoiled the dramatic finale of HBO’s six-part documentary series “The Jinx.” Sullivan brought the issue to Times metro editor Wendell Jamieson, who responded to ire from West Coast viewers who hadn’t yet watched the finale.

“This was news, and it would have been tweeted all over anyway,” he told me. “There’s a competitive element to this; it would have made no sense to hold back.”

That sentiment is shared by The Associated Press, which last week published a case study that justified its decision to send out news alerts announcing Grammy-award winners through its mobile app and social media channels. It gave a similar explanation to The New York Times for its decision to send the push notification out: Even though not all viewers had seen the telecast yet, it was still newsworthy.

As a global news organization, there’s no way we can hold up breaking news from events millions of people are watching, like the Grammys, just because not everyone has seen it yet.

For The Associated Press, the decision to alert readers to potentially spoiler-y news comes down to a distinction between covering entertainment news, such as the Grammys, and violating the suspense that “many enjoy around the content of entertainment programs themselves.”

Stacy-Marie Ishmael, the ‎editorial lead of news apps at BuzzFeed News, argues that there are actually “no spoilers in news.” Ishmael, who is part of a team that’s developing the company’s forthcoming news app, argues that news organizations — and readers — are more or less in a constant state of spoilerhood.

“Wars may yet be fought over whether noting the death of a fictionalized character in a culturally significant TV show counts as a ‘spoiler,’ but the reality is that audiences exist in different time zones and with different levels of news awareness and you’re always ‘spoiling’ something, for someone, somewhere,” Ishmael wrote to Poynter.

One solution to keep readers at bay is to give them the power to control what types of news they receive updates for. Breaking News, an NBC News-owned company that serves up alerts to readers through its mobile app, allows users to mute alerts around news events, such as the Boston Marathon bombing trial, or topics, such as celebrity news. This opt-out strategy is also being considered by BuzzFeed’s News apps team, which is thinking about ways to let users avoid receiving undesired alerts and updates, Ishmael said.

Breaking News currently has about 40,000 categories that users can choose to receive alerts for or mute, said Cory Bergman general manager and co-founder of the company. The trick, Bergman said, is to preserve the serendipity of spontaneous news alerts and updates around important topics while at the same time helping readers avoid things they’re not interested in. One strategy, employed during the Grammys, was to tell users they could choose to skip continuous coverage of the award show or opt-in to receive push notifications.

“We remind people that they have the power to make a decision about what they want to see,” Bergman said.

Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled the name of New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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