Much of the last week in media has seen an intense debate over a weekend viral video depicting a high school student and a Native American man. The news cycle has plumbed this story endlessly, to some troubling results.
As further coverage has gone deeper, a good takeaway from the affair for community radio stations may be how to approach developing stories.
By now, you have likely seen the photos and video. An elderly man and a youth, standing nearly nose to nose, with obscure figures in the background. The major news narrative paints what has become a familiar picture: protest, confrontation and hot takes on race, politics and culture. The young man is wearing a Make America Great Again baseball cap. The older man in banging a drum and vocalizing loudly within inches of the teenager. Opinions as to the dispositions of both go where you might expect them to go, and they have gone quite far in many outlets.
The aftermath of this moment in time is also familiar. Media normally averse to naming minors have the 17-year-old’s name, and more, everywhere. The analysis of what occurred was often rooted in one’s ideological outlook. However, what emerged as more footage and photos came out has made the story some claimed far less true than was initially argued. More actors were involved, the students accused of particular behavior were absolved, and the issues seemed more than what everyone assumed. The various memes churned out in the hours after the viral news broke seemed more and more hollow.
Then there is the human aspect of the story and what society expects of its young people. The Atlantic’s Julie Zimmerman sums it up best. “As I watched the longer videos, I began to see the smirking kid in a different light. It seemed to me that a wave of emotions rolled over his face as [Nathan] Phillips approached him: confusion, fear, resolve,” she writes. “He finally, I thought, settled on an expression designed to mimic respect while signaling to his friends that he had this under control. Observing it, I wondered what different reaction I could have reasonably hoped a high-school junior to have in such an unfamiliar and bewildering situation. I came up empty.”
This incident comes on the heels of a Buzzfeed report widely panned for its anonymous sourcing, among other news coverage whose veracity is being questioned. The journalistic landmines cost all of our organizations trust if they are false.
Covering stories that go viral and separating fact from bias has become easily one of the most daunting tasks for journalists and media organizations everywhere. Determining newsworthiness versus salaciousness is an equally difficult task.
Central to reporting on a viral story is to understand exactly what your station may be covering. That might seem obvious, but if your station is approaching a viral story, knowing what it is beyond the headline and being able to explain its many facets to your audience is required. Journalists are human, and it can be easy to get swept up in chasing the news clock and not consider much regarding the bigger picture. Community radio, with its bond of trust with listeners, must actively resist this trend.
Another aspect of reporting is understanding — is a viral story is really newsworthy? Being viral is not in and of itself newsworthy. In this instance, for example, journalists who have been on a newspaper, radio or TV local desk have undoubtedly heard about many a city demonstration. Hecklers and standoffs at protests are generally not news, because they happen at virtually every gathering of this sort. Indeed, it is probably the rally that didn’t have counterpoint opinions nearby that is unusual. Former New York Times leader Jill Abramson remarked recently that one of the challenges for journalists is finding real stories in your community rather than chasing clicks, as confrontations are sure to do.
Approaching viral stories with healthy skepticism could also be a remedy. In the latest scandal, it took people looking past the single video of the student and the older man to give the public fuller context. If your station is going to cover viral stories, how can you add more to the conversation? How can you ask harder questions? Your audience expects you to go beyond the surface. How can you do so? These are questions every station should try to answer, and to execute with confidence.
Needless to say, but our age of viral news is not ending soon. Your radio station can contribute a great deal to a better public discourse by taking on these tales in a nuanced, intelligent manner. You will gain audience faith and support in the long run.