When Good Intentions Lead to Bad Journalism


The cycle of online outrage journalism goes a little something like this: an inflammatory story is published; the Internet reacts; the original story is not apologized for, but rather defended; everyone moves on to the next inflammatory story; rinse and repeat. Most recently, an essay on xoJane about a woman’s experience in her yoga class and Jezebel’s $10,000 bounty on unretouched photos from Lena Dunham’s Vogue shoot have been the posts that ignited a million responsive blog posts and at least ten times that many tweets. Both of these pieces generated a very specific kind of outrage from those who responded (including, well, my own responses) in that the real problem with the stories wasn’t just that they were offensive, but also that they were thoughtlessly provocative and were signals of how desperate web editors have become when looking for pageviews. And the defense for both pieces were somewhat similar, namely that—even though people were offended—the intentions behind the articles were good. And shouldn’t that be enough? Well, no.

In the case of Jezebel and the Dunham photos—which was a post written by the site’s editor-in-chief, Jessica Coen—the outraged reaction by many readers who felt that the site was betraying its stated feminist ethos was met by the Jezebel editors’ response that their intentions were good and honest and that publishing the unretouched photos was actually in Dunham’s best interest as a woman who has become such a role model for body-positivity. Coen claimed to “love [Dunham] just the way she is” as if that statement would prove that the only purpose for requesting and then publishing those photos would be a positive one, despite Dunham’s own opposition and disgust with the situation. In effect, the editors at Jezebel hid behind the idea that because their intentions were just (feminism! body positivity! not pageviews!), there was nothing wrong with what they were doing, and any outrage on the part of the readers was misplaced.

In contrast to Jezebel’s response, after Jen Polachek’s essay about the discomfort and guilt she felt at observing a black woman in her yoga class received an enormous amount of backlash, the managing editor of xoJane, Rebecca Carroll, responded in a post of her own and explained her decision to run the article, writing, “the fact that Jen was willingly offering up this explicit admittance of her white privilege struck me as valuable in some way. At the very least, a good jump-off point.” Carroll admits that she was surprised at the ensuing outcry and that readers’ reactions “compelled [her] to think more deeply about [her] own intentions in publishing it, and its effect.” Carroll’s response is far more apologetic than that of the Jezebel editors, and takes into account the anger that many readers felt about the piece, and yet it still seems to ask forgiveness because the post was commissioned with only the best intentions, and that Carroll just wanted to run something honest.

It’s certainly nice to think that good intentions and the desire to portray how someone honestly feels would mostly lead to journalism and personal essays that can contribute in a constructive way to a larger community of readers, but that pretty much misses the very basic point that good intentions and honesty aren’t nearly enough. Also important for all editors (if not all writers, although, of course, we all bear personal responsibility for our own words) is to remember that if you want to start a conversation—and offering a reward for unretouched celebrity photos, or publishing a piece about race and yoga WILL get people talking—then you’d better be prepared to have a valid reason for why you wanted to get the conversation started in the first place, and, as Michelle Dean points out in an excellent essay on Flavorwire, “honesty” isn’t a good enough reason, there has to be some other, worthwhile philosophy. Because otherwise? All these editors are doing is releasing more noise on the Internet, and contributing to an outrage cycle that is, quite frankly, exhausting, yes, but also just leads to a hell of a lot of bad journalism, which should be something any good editor is against. So maybe the next time an editor at one of those (or any) sites happens upon an idea or a story that is obviously provocative and will generate a million clicks, they’ll pause to think a little bit more about their intentions, and whether or not they’re any good at all.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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