Entertainment journalists scour fan theories for truth

October 18, 2018

Peter Dinklage recently reignited a Game of Thrones fan theory with just four words during an acceptance speech at the 2018 Emmys in September. It’s a crock theory, and really only a handful of social media users jumped on his unintentional phrasing, but for several entertainment news websites hungry for any sort of Game of Thrones-related traffic, it was content.

Shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld, with their complex, tangled plots, turn many viewers into amateur detectives and prognosticators—and send entertainment writers down the rabbit hole after them. These fiction-based theories, many of which are developed on Reddit, are a vibrant part of modern fandom, and journalists recognize the appeal, traffic value, and occasional narrative insights these theories provide. The key, according to writers, is knowing how to tell good fan theories from bad ones—and then choosing whether or not to aggregate these stories. Because, even though it’s speculative fiction, there are consequences.

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“My Theory 101 course starts with the question of Why does it matter?” explains Kim Renfro, a senior culture reporter for Insider. Renfro, who is currently writing an unofficial history of Game of Thrones, has seen more than her share of shoddy theories, and the bad ones betray a total ignorance of traditional storytelling and narrative rules. “You can line up a bunch of evidence for why you think something is going to happen, but if you can’t then explain what the result would do to the story in a meaningful way, then it doesn’t matter,” she says.

Joanna Robinson, a senior writer for Vanity Fair and the host of two big Game of Thrones podcasts, cites the rumor Dinklage accidently spread as an example of a bad theory. During his acceptance speech, he called co-star (and on-screen sibling) Nikolaj Coster-Waldau his “brother from another mother.” For some fans who believe that his character, Tyrion Lannister, is secretly a relative of the dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen, this simple turn of phrase functioned as a sly confirmation.

Problem is, even if there are scattered bits of evidence that could somewhat support that conclusion, this reveal would tear down years of established storytelling for no satisfying reason in the show’s eleventh hour. Tyrion’s complicated relationship with his family, especially his father’s disdain for his son, would be rendered “meaningless,” as Robinson says. A casually discarded end for what had previously been a core pillar of the show’s plot.

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“You don’t have any sense of how this world reveals twists and turns,” Robinson says of people who propagate this theory.

Robinson, Renfro, and other respected entertainment journalists are, in a sense, fact-checking fan theories before they cover them—with a kind of literary logic. Since showrunners aren’t likely to “confirm” a theory and spoil the plot, traditional reporting tends not to be necessary (another part of the reason these stories a daily content staple), but entertainment journalists check Reddit posts against their knowledge of the fictional world and their understanding of the series’ storytelling styles and tropes.

Another Thrones theory, one that predicts that Jaime Lannister, a rich jerk with a secret (but inconsistent) heart of gold, will end up killing his sister/lover Cersei, passes the good journalist’s smell test. Narratively, it’s a logical (if still shocking) conclusion to the two characters’ arcs, which have seen them increasingly at-odds with each other. It’s tragic, but not out of left-field, and it’s buoyed by some evidence that’s only in the books the show is based on, proving that the theorist knows what they’re talking about. Even though HBO’s show has surpassed the plot of the long-delayed book series, understanding that original context can still bolster a theory.

“The most important thing for a fan theory,” Robinson says, “is a thorough understanding of the rules of the universe or the way that particular story is told.” There are several hall-of-fame theories that meet these standards. (Ask any Game of Thrones fan what “R + L = J” means and they’ll tell you all about it.) Problem is, there are more bad theories than there are good ones, and less scrupulous or traffic-starved writers will write them up.

That bogus theory from the Emmys? Websites like Esquire, Metro, and Maxim all jumped on the story, elevating the theory and broadcasting it to their audiences, creating a ripple effect where other sites needed to toss their own hat into the aggregation game. (Dinklage shot down the theory on Jimmy Kimmel Live! later that week.)

A month before the Emmys incident, Esquire and Metro, along with Elite Daily and Inverse, wrote stories about a fan theory sourced from Reddit that argued that Cersei Lannister would end up being the series’ heretofore-unmentioned ice-zombie big bad, the Night Queen. It’s pure speculation bordering on fanfiction, but these outlets elevated the idea to a general audience that might not be as discerning as the die-hards on the Game of Thrones subreddit. Glamour, BroBible, Mashable, Comic Book Resources, and Screen Rant have all done the same with older theories that wouldn’t pass a knowledgeable skeptic’s test.

Sure, it’s all make-believe, but outlets that don’t have high standards when it comes to fan theories are doing their readers—and themselves—a disservice. Spreading every half-baked theory is bad for narrative literacy, but such theories can erode readers’ trust.

“I honestly think that fans have the right to feel superior to outlets that do this,” says Krutika Mallikarjuna, a senior editor at TV Guide. Fans who know that a theory is totally implausible have less reason to trust a site that covered it as an authority. “That’s the real price of the fan theory traffic grind,’ Mallikarjuna adds.

“I know plenty of really, really smart writers who are in a bind because their bosses are like ‘print up this theory,’ and they know it’s garbage,” Robinson says.

Sometimes, a theory becomes widespread enough (in part because of the exposure less discerning outlets gave it), Renfro will end up covering it on her site — in order to debunk it.

“I try to address the meta conversation around the theory and all the reasons why I think it has gotten out of control or doesn’t make sense,” she says.

The clickbait that plagues online media is an extra hurdle for entertainment journalists, who find themselves in the interesting position of covering fiction and fan theories with the same sense of responsibility to the truth that they’d apply to real-world stories. But, even in the fantasy world of Game of Thrones’ Westeros, journalists should be critical with what they cover, rather than simply writing any theory up.

“That to me is the difference between a writer and journalist,” Mallikarjuna says.

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James Grebey is a journalist living in New York. He's written for SPIN, Inverse, GQ, Billboard, and SYFY WIRE, to name a few, and he used to have a webcomic.