When important investigative reporting must compete with Brangelina

Photo: Georges Biard (Flickr)

The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold broke the story today that Donald Trump used more than $250,000 from his charitable foundation to settle legal disputes for his for-profit businesses. In other news, Angelina Jolie filed for divorce from Brad Pitt. Can you guess which story got more attention?

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Frustrated by this dynamic, some journalists on Twitter have turned to a version of the bait-and-switch affectionately known as Rick-rolling. Indeed, Emma Roller, a freelancer and contributing writer for the New York Times opinion page, tweeted out the Post story story using the line, “wow, so THIS is why Angelina left.”

The tactic is part-joke, partly a means of capitalizing on readers’ outsized interest in celebrities, and partly an expression of exasperation about hard-reported, important journalism getting buried by stories about famous people. This problem has reached a new level during the recent election cycle, as so much impressive investigative work and relentless fact-checking seem not to be putting a dent in Trump’s image, at least among his supporters.

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Journalists are competing not only with celebrity news and Trump himself, but with other journalists. In an email, Roller says her tweet was not meant to criticize celebrity gossip, but to comment on “the flightiness of the news cycle”:

I was reading Twitter, and David Fahrenthold’s big scoop about Donald Trump’s shady spending of other people’s charitable donations broke. I follow a lot of political reporters on Twitter, and they all started to share David’s story. But … the Brangelina news broke at the same time, and like moths to a bug zapper, all these political reporters stopped talking about David’s story and started sharing Jennifer Aniston GIFs.

Roller didn’t expect her tweet to get so much attention (more than 4,000 retweets and likes as of Tuesday evening), but others soon followed, including Politico’s Hadas Gold, who retweeted Roller with an “OMG, read this.” In Gold’s tweets, unlike in Roller’s, the image and headline of Trump are not visible—perpetuating the misconception that Roller’s tweet was actually about Angelina.

One person responding on Twitter called it the “first documented case of responsible clickbait.” It is a journalist’s job to act responsibly in the public interest, but straight misrepresentation is not responsible. Tweeting out a link with misleading text—even as a joke—is the equivalent of changing a headline. The text of a tweet, from a trusted reporter, is the Twitter user’s path into an article; a journalist has a responsibility to accurately describe the piece.

I spoke briefly to the Society of Professional Journalists’s Head of Ethics Andrew Seaman this Sunday, before this latest Twitter eruption. He emphasized that the SPJ’s ethics code for journalists applies universally; journalists should not act differently on Twitter than they do in their writing. So does tweeting like this violate the SPJ’s code to “label advocacy and commentary,” and “never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information”?

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Roller is an opinion writer, which gives her more leeway than others. The New York Times has repeatedly reminded reporters to remain unbiased; BuzzFeed sent a similar memo to staff last month. Most media organizations now have guidelines for their employees on Twitter, but even so, writes Tow fellow Svenja Ottovordemgentschenfelde, journalists feel there is a great deal of risk involved in tweeting.

Referring to how “Twitter has a way of blowing things out of proportion,” one journalist admitted, “I definitely would not be surprised if, say a year from now, I tweet something just kind of candidly and it ends up coming back to haunt me and getting me fired.”

Much of this is uncharted territory. Even seasoned reporters who don’t misrepresent the content of the piece are trying to capitalize on Brad/Angelina readership. See The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty, who jokingly calls it a #mediaconspiracy that the announcement coincided with the Post piece. But she uses the #brangelina hashtag, thereby driving traffic to Fahrenthold’s story. What are the ethics of misleading an audience that is trying to find content about something else?

Twitter has given journalists space to show more personality, but this extra room also opens up risk. That the news cycle pays more attention to Brad and Angelina is a dilemma that goes beyond the purview of journalists alone–and it is not the job of a single journalist to solve it. Some stories are culturally engineered to attract attention, and Twitter is only the latest tool to reward playfulness over credibility and seriousness. Ultimately, newsrooms and journalists need to work together with platforms such as Twitter to slow the news cycle and bring more attention to stories that matter.

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Nausicaa Renner is editor of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s vertical at Columbia Journalism Review. She tweets at @nausjcaa.