Site sparks uproar on social media with Vegas massacre headline

October 3, 2017

Early Monday morning, Romper, a website for millennial mothers owned by Bustle Digital Group, published the first of many pieces covering the Las Vegas shooting that took place Sunday night.

The article’s title—“More Than 50 People Have Died In Las Vegas. Here Are Their Names”—promised more information than any news outlet had released at the time. But it failed to deliver, causing outrage across social media.

The story (since updated) repeated the same details dozens of other media outlets were reporting, but contained no victims’ names. The headline looked conspicuously like a bait-and-switch attempt to attract search engine and social media traffic.

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Sometime between 10 am and noon on Monday, Romper pulled the piece from its Facebook page. Meanwhile, Romper switched its headline to: “Who Are The Las Vegas Shooting Victims? More Than 50 People Have Lost Their Lives,” and added a note at the end:

An earlier headline prematurely stated that the post contained the victims’ names. We will update the post with their names as they are released. We sincerely regret the error.

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On social media, Romper readers criticized the site for trying to take advantage of a national tragedy to garner clicks and boost search engine optimization. (A media kit says the site gets about 4 million monthly unique visitors.)

The critics have a strong case: Romper had published 38 pieces about the shooting as of Tuesday afternoon, covering everything from how to change your profile picture on Facebook in solidarity with the victims to a profile on Jason Aldean, the country singer who was performing as the shooting commenced. While some of the pieces offer insights and resources, the sheer volume and the “names” misstep led readers to question whether Romper is interested in informing its readers or trying to drive meaningless pageviews.

The site, after all, bills itself as a home for “personal stories, life hacks, expert advice, celebrity news and interviews, recipes, fashion and beauty tips, and daily coverage of the issues” millennial mothers care about. Recent homepage headlines include, “7 Things Made for Kids That I Shamelessly Wish I Could Use On My Husband” and “How To Encourage Good Hygiene Without Shaming Your Child.”

CJR reached out by social media and email to Danielle Campoamor, a Romper editor and the article’s author; April Daniels Hussar, Romper’s deputy editor; Kate Ward, Bustle’s editor in chief; and Korey Lane, Romper’s news editor, for comment. No one had responded by CJR’s deadline. There’s no office number listed on the company’s website or in publicly available directories. (Disclosure: I wrote three articles for Romper’s parent company, Bustle, on a freelance basis between January and June 2016, but I no longer write for them.)

In an email to CJR late Tuesday afternoon, Romper Managing Editor Margaret Wheeler Johnson blamed the error on “a miscommunication.” She added, “We do our best to cover situations like the tragedy in Las Vegas in a timely and sensitive manner.”

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A few former Romper writers were willing to chat with CJR: “At best this was a grievous editorial oversight,” says Kristi Pahr, a former staff writer who left to freelance. “At worst it’s purposeful exploitation coupled with a blatant disregard for journalistic integrity and basic human compassion.”

Britni de la Cretaz, a freelance writer based in Boston, was a lifestyle writer for Romper who blames her departure in early 2016 on the site’s reporting practices. “The reason I ultimately quit the job was because of the low pay, and the fact that I felt my job was to churn out low-quality content that I was embarrassed to include in my portfolio,” she tells CJR. “I often felt gross about the emails [editors would send] asking for hot takes on traumatic news events.”

Bustle Digital Group says on its website that it values “authenticity, inclusivity, positivity, and empowerment,” but nothing about opportunistically turning tragedy into cheap clicks.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a comment from the managing editor of Romper.

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Elis Aaron (they/them) is an androgyne writer, editor, and activist. Their current projects include on two horror novels -a modern Gothic-by-the-sea and a queer, feminist serial killer tale- and many pieces about the intersection of psychology and art. Connect with Elis on Twitter @ElisBAaron.