Hits=Dollars: The changing ethics of online journalism

We just did a roundtable based on The Sunday Times’ cherry-picked JKR quote, which was packaged to create Harry Potter controversy. I’m sure it generated a lot of ad revenue for them. And then there’s xoJane running IHTM: My White Yoga Privilege, and its followup. It looked like a strategic move on the part of a editorial to generate controversy and wash then their hands of it. But for the record, xoJane editor Rebecca Caroll says she thought it could be the start of a good discussion. And then there’s NYT publishing Woody Allen’s letter of defense. No, we won’t be linking.
It was an interesting week in arts/culture journalism–and I had some questions.
Jamie, Catie, Kelly, and Brenda responded. 
Do you think that traditional journalistic ethics and practice are “old fashioned”? That we need to embrace the shift (Buzzfeed is emblematic) towards editorial and financial interests being one and the same?

Jamie: No, I really, really don’t. The article we haven’t mentioned here, but that springs to mind is Dr. V, who committed suicide because the journalist writing about her chose to out her. She demanded her privacy be honored, described outing her as a hate crime. And he still chose the angle of “she used to be a man, so how do we know this isn’t just a big old con game?” The article was about a golf club. The gender of its creator was completely irrelevant, but he put spin on it at Dr. V’s expense for clicks. That’s despicable. If we stayed on the line of JUST THE STORY, we wouldn’t have tragedies like this, and backpedaling editors trying to make their writer out like the victim.

As for Woody Allen, Dylan Farrow got published online, but Woody Allen got old school print? That’s like talking directly to the audiences who have each chosen a side of the divide. Dylan’s supporters are more likely to be online. Allen’s are more likely to be old white men who actually still buy the print edition on actual paper. Which means that if there’s an insistence on “both sides” of a story, neither audience really gets to see “both sides.” To say nothing of the power dynamic; the accusations are scoffed at by Allen’s supporters, just like they were for Polanski’s. Talent is treated like it is more important than any atrocity that a talented person might commit; or even that talent makes committing atrocities impossible. And the less well-known and less powerful the victim is, the less likely they are to be treated as believable or worth listening to.

The White Yoga Privilege story strikes me as an unfortunate case of more of the same. The self-described skinny white girl describes her feelings, and what went through her head. Not once did she describe having asked the “heavyset black woman” what was really going on with her. This is a pervasive and pernicious problem between white feminists and feminism as a whole — they see themselves as the core and body of the movement, and that anyone else should be joining them. Not that the author of the article even bothered to touch on the fact that yoga being a “white girls activity” is face-palmingly appropriative, given that Yoga originated in the East.

Catie: I’m torn on this, because on one hand there is no “objective” story, and I think there is something to the argument that even a journalist attempting to present a balanced, truthful story will skew it. I think that’s one of the ways journalism can uphold the status quo and further marginalize groups, even without meaning to. The supreme fuckery that is the Dr. V story is a good example of that, because you have a journalist who clearly has no idea what he’s doing re: trans issues doing the reporting, and while I’m sure he didn’t intend to cause harm, unfortunately intent isn’t magical and the real horrible harm still happened. And the New York Times’ decision to run Allen’s response is such a repugnant example of rape culture I want to spew Red Lantern rage blood all over the editors. So…I’m not sure what the right answer is! I think the old-fashioned ethics are imperfect, but better than having no ethics at all?

Brenda: I think part of the answer lies in our audience. For example, there’s a distinct difference between most daily newspapers and tabloids. Knowing your mission, knowing who your readers are and who you want them not only defines whether you stick to journalistic ethics and practices, or practices that might lend to more a sensationalist tone, but also help the bottom dollar.

What, for you, is the line between clickbait and legitimate breaking news? And is clickbait inherently unethical in a news organization?

Jamie: I think clickbait is sensationalized just for the purposes of working people into a furious lather. I’ve also seen people respond to it by using donotclick.com to avoid giving such obvious linkbait the clicks they desire. I recently called out the New York Times (seeing a pattern here) for referring to the winter storm that paralyzed Atlanta for 3 days as having “ambushed” the South. Personification of the weather as a sneak attack, when the easily verifiable truth is that Georgia’s government just didn’t get their plan of action into motion until it was already too late? Lazy, sensationalistic, and an insult to the intelligence of their readers. They changed the headline, eventually, but Google cache is forever.

Catie: I think one of the problems is that the line between news and opinion is so blurred in our current media environment, especially online. There is a long tradition of newspapers printing batshit insane op-ed pieces or letters to the editor, but that seems different from the clickbait articles we seem to be getting now. Especially in the case of xoJane, where everyone who writes an IHTM is presented as sort of a journalist, well, then to an extent it’s like they’re representing xoJane as a whole, which makes things even more fucked up. This issue is more heightened when the clickbait is about gender/race/sexuality/disability/etc. identity issues. I loved xoJane’s crazy “lotus birth” article that was clearly clickbait, but the white-girl-yoga one was really gross.

At the Globe and Mail in Canada, online editors have had their bonuses tied to performance. More hits=more dollars. As a writer and editor, I find this a little terrifying. What if it’s a slow news quarter? What would you be driven to do? What do you think of making journalism “results oriented”?

Jamie: I agree it’s terrifying. That’s one step away from inventing the news to get clicks.

Kelly: It just seems so incredibly subjective. Some topics are probably likely to get more hits than others, especially among certain demographics. But some journalists who write about lower hit-count topics might be better at their jobs than some journalists who write about higher hit-count topics. I can possibly see the case for increasing bonuses for journalists who write single articles or series of articles that generate massive amounts of clicks, but making this a regular practice will likely result in some areas of journalism being privileged over others in financial terms.

Catie: I think it’s really screwed up. In general, I think that what online has done in terms of paying journalists for their content has been pretty devastating and is a real deterrent to the quality, well-researched journalism society needs. There has to be a better system.

Brenda: I’m a data girl, so I can understand the need for data markers to measure success. Back in the heyday of print journalism, subscription numbers gave papers leverage with advertisers and helped to give a sense of how a company was financially. With the internet, the 24-hour news cycle, and the amount of free content available, the metrics get muddled. Click-rate is probably part of the picture, but it’s scary when it becomes the only measurement of success.

Entertainment journalism has a reputation for being ethically bankrupt and, well, lazy–softball interviews, lazy reviews designed to get you an in, and fangirl fawning. How do you push yourself past this mindset? Have you ever phoned it in, or slowed your pitches because you liked a subject? Have you ever felt worried or scared to push a subject harder, or turn in a negative review?

Jamie: We have comics in our name, and it’s no secret, here or anywhere, that comics has a problem with diversity. And so do properties that come from comics. We saw how many stories about sexual harassment in 2013 alone? We’ve seen how many discussions about convention harassment policies?

We’ve seen how many blog posts and articles pointing out that women’s viewership is not only not sought after, but is considered a detriment to the success of a show or property (for example, Green Lantern The Animated Series and Young Justice)?

We’ve seen quotes from studio heads, saying they don’t need to make female action movies since audiences are fine with coming in droves to see the male heroes. The Marvel movies with the most women in the cast were the X-Men films, and those aren’t even owned by Marvel Entertainment. This mindset persists, even with Frozen, Catching Fire, and Gravity — three female-led movies — having been huge successes at the time of their release.

Women are still considered too troublesome, and cultural industries are still too entrenched in supporting the white cis male demographic uber alles to venture beyond that, because they’re not sure how much of the almighty dollar will be at risk.

I worry a little about negative interviews, because this is the internet, and the internet loves nothing more than to start a good flamewar, or to tear people up, down, and in half on the comments. But I was raised with old school journalism rules. Respect your sources. Stick to the facts. Sensationalism is for tabloids and rags. I mean to write with integrity, and I hope to be called on it if I misstep.

Catie: Entertainment and culture, just like anything else, needs and deserves criticism and engaging journalism on the hard issues if it’s going to be better. If no one’s talking about the Big Two’s devastating lack of black creators, they’re not going to have an impetus to change. People, not just in geek culture but all over, love to pretend problems in the things they like just don’t exist. It’s journalists’ job to bring that stuff to light. Look at how gaming journalism has been having a recent conversation about harassment of female journalists. The situation is totally fucked up, but HOPEFULLY the more it’s out in the open, the more that behavior will be considered unacceptable.

Break it down for me. What’s your plan for improving the state of geek journalism?

Kelly: More thoughtfully critical attitudes. That means, for instance, not getting all excited just because certain characters are getting big-budget movies, but thinking about the impact of said movies – who is making the movie? What are the attitudes and approaches taken by their previous work? How will this new movie affect the public reception of the characters and properties involved?

If geek journalism sticks to the “We’re getting recognized by the popular kids!” mindset, or alternately to the change-is-bad mindset, we’re not going to get anywhere. It’s either going to look desperate for approval or unnecessarily negative, and neither of these images are going to help.

Jamie: There’s nothing wrong with getting excited, but journalistic integrity means that the excitement can’t take the front seat and drive the content we produce. We have to strive for fairness and clarity. We also have to be super-careful not to fall into the trap that so many other publications have fallen into: adding diversity but sloppily: an image where a black man’s head has been photoshopped in, but his hands are still white. Or worse, the opposite: where a white man’s head has been shopped in, but the hands are brown. We have to be careful to not erase oppressed groups when we’re talking large-scale. We have to stand our ground when people try to characterize us as oversensitive or sneer that we’re just being PC drones.

Catie: Trying to find a way to blend a fan’s enthusiasm for a medium, with a journalist’s dedication to quality content and bringing truth to the readers.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.