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Summary:

When you come across a viral story about a heart-warming incident that you know will get millions of pageviews, how closely should you look into the claims that the viral story is based on?

Does it matter if that viral video that everyone is so busy sharing was a stunt cooked up by a late-night talk show host? Or if that letter from an outraged grandparent to his homophobic daughter isn’t all it appears to be? These are the kinds of ethical dilemmas that tend to crop up when your editorial output is based in part on finding and sharing — and benefiting from the traffic generated by — viral content, the way it is for outlets like Gawker, or BuzzFeed, or Upworthy.

The tension created by that dilemma burst into the open this week in the comments on a recent Gawker post, and eventually pulled in writer Neetzan Zimmerman — who specializes in finding and writing about viral content for the network — as well as founder Nick Denton and Gawker editor John Cook. While they didn’t arrive at any solutions to the problem, at least they are talking about it out in the open where everyone can see them.

Denton tweet

A heart-warming letter from a grandfather

The post that sparked the discussion was one Zimmerman did about a letter that a grandfather supposedly wrote to his daughter, in which he chastised “Christine” for disowning her own child, “Chad,” who had recently come out as gay. A heart-warming and uplifting story, it first emerged on the Facebook page of a gay-friendly and activist-oriented clothing brand called FCKH8 and later made its way to Huffington Post, Upworthy and many other outlets, including Gawker. By late Friday over 17,000 people had “liked” it on Facebook and almost 9,000 had shared it.

Grandfather letter

Denton — along with a number of readers — raised a red flag about the letter in the comments (few founders show up in the comments section of their own sites as much as Denton, who routinely goes there to argue with his own writers and editors). He said he found the letter “even less credible than the last of its type,” which was a letter from a father to his son, who was about to come out of the closet — a letter also shared by FCKH8, with no details or evidence provided about the individuals involved, despite multiple requests. Said Denton:

“These letters are well-written. The hatched paper is a nice touch. The sentiment is almost too touching to be credible — but too viral for most outlets to check. At least twice now Neetzan and other reporters have been thwarted in their efforts to run down the origin.”

To drive traffic, or to tell the truth?

In a reply to Denton, editor-in-chief John Cook agreed that his skepticism was warranted, but then went on to point out that Zimmerman’s job is simply to find and share viral content — not necessarily to track down whether it is ultimately true or not. And in two short paragraphs, he summed up the dilemma at the core of traffic-driven sites like Gawker and BuzzFeed:

“Part of our job is to make sure we’re writing about things that people are talking about on the internet, and the incentive structure of this company is organized to make sure that we are on top of things that are going viral… we are tasked both with extending the legacy of what Gawker has always been — ruthless honesty — and be reliably and speedily on top of internet culture all while getting a shit-ton of traffic. Those goals are sometimes in tension.”

Later, during a related discussion on Twitter involving Reuters blogger Felix Salmon, the Gawker editor said that if truth ever became the ultimate barometer then traffic would plummet:

Denton tweet1

Finally, Zimmerman himself (who was single-handedly responsible for generating over 16 million pageviews in August, more than some entire websites produce with dozens of staff) jumped in and pointed out that poking holes in viral stories makes them dramatically less viral:

“People don’t look to these stories for hard facts and shoe-leather reporting. They look to them for fleeting instances of joy or comfort. That is the part they play in the Internet news hole. Overthinking Internet ephemera is a great way to kill its viral potential.”

If you tell the truth, people might not share it

Grumpy Cat

Zimmerman described one recent post about a firefighter rescuing a kitten from a burning building. The kitten later died — a fact the Gawker writer included. But that “damaged the virality” of the post, he says. “You really can’t have it both ways when it comes to viral content. If you want to capitalize on its sharing prowess and reap the PVs that come with that, then you simply can’t take a hard-boiled approach to fluff. People are just not going to share a cat video of a dead cat.”

Can you serve the needs of your readers for uplifting stories, and the financial needs of your advertising-driven (and therefore traffic-driven) media operation, while still poking holes in happy stories? Denton noted on Twitter that the stories Gawker is best known for — or that he prefers — are journalistically credible, including the iPhone 5 prototype leak and the story about football player Manti Te’o and his imaginary girlfriend.

All of those no doubt also drove lots of traffic — but then so do stories about rescued kittens and heart-warming letters from grandfathers. Do they need to be treated in the same journalistic way, or are they just eye candy that sells the ads that pay for the true stuff?

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Donskarpo and Grumpy Cat Inc.

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  1. Daniël W. Crompton (webhat) Friday, October 4, 2013

    The troubles of serving two masters – advertisers and readers – will always end up in serving neither fully. Just look at the credibility hit that peer review journals are currently sustaining with their shenanigans.

    1. Is there a reason my comment is awaiting moderation?

  2. I’m sorry, but when we stop caring about whether something is true or not, we’ve lost a LOT. And we’ll probably never get it back.

  3. Much depends on how you define yourself internally and to your audience.
    If you are doing journalism, then truth is not negotiable. It must be pursued with as much effort as resources allow.
    If you are a site that hawks cool stuff, represent yourself as such and go nuts.
    But you cannot be both.

    1. Spot on. Gawker/Buzzfeed etc used to clearly be the second but as they grow they’re starting to struggle with an identity crisis of sorts. It’s a different version of an old-school problem though. This struggle has been around since the rise of ‘objective journalism’ and it will continue to plague for-profit publishers… no matter what their medium/business model is.

      As a sidenote, I’m not so sure about Denton’s claim that Gawker is best known for journalistically credible articles. You hear this line a lot from new media bosses, but if they stepped down the ladder and started writing viral buzz for $50K a year I reckon they’d have a different opinion on the kind of content that defines those outlets.

      Not saying viral buzz is bad, but it’s not investigative pieces that are paying the bills at Gawker… and in my view the content that pays the bills is the content that characterises a media outlet.

    2. Good point, Evan. Thanks for the comment.

    3. Agreed, in theory.

      But, as long as Gawker makes money, it WILL be both. And, their reality will trump your and my theory.

  4. A journalist “sharing” and “producing” content is the same thing and should be held to the same standards of accuracy and truth. If Gawker and other viral publications don’t want to meet those standards, then as a reader, I won’t trust anything they produce. As a news organization, you can’t just say, ‘And over here, in this section of our site, we write fact-checked journalism stories, and over here, in this other section, we just post and write about stuff that other people are talking about.’

  5. Mathew,time for truth is I am a single Mom with many barriers trying to kick my ass into the world and be known.I am like the underdog the misfit trying as I may to battle the Giants!I am a one woman Corporation yet this is about to avalanche . In my province I want to also take on the CEO of Creative Sasktachewan. I have been writing letters for 6 months to make my name heard there.This is a top Crown Corp Position. I have been
    Tom Cruise Forover 6 mo this with letters for submissions for scipt lines for MI5.
    I want to learn it all.
    I continue to write and be Top Commentor on Richard Branson’s Blogs. I continue to try to get noticed with Donald Trump. I sent painting to both Donald and Richard and they got lost in the mail.My Corporation is about to be possibly bigger than all these men put together. I continue to try to tell my story and it is as though the whole world thinks how could one woman single handedly battle them? well watch me!

  6. Journalists have been confronting this same issue for hundreds of years. Hence the adage ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’ Details are hidden or exaggerated to make it a better story. This isn’t really a gawker / up worthy / buzzfeed / Internet specific issue at all, just that the openness of the Internet makes fact-checking a lot easier and visible to everybody.

  7. “Do they need to be treated in the same journalistic way?” If a site wants readers to take the rest of its reported content seriously then yes, it would help that they’re not passing off fiction as fact.

  8. Creative people in many fields have been playing on the slippery side of truth since time immemorial. Literary giants like Mark Twain, E.A. Poe and Walt Whitman recognized that stories can be true to the heart and the spirit without being based in facts. Journalists have a narrow view of truth, indeed.

    As it turns out, we want to share works that require our active interpretation. We want to participate in a community of readers – and that’s what virality is all about. Because of genre blurriness stemming from the rise of social media, it’s not always easy to make sense of what we see, watch and read. To understand these new works, we need to share our interpretations with others.

    Matthew, your work is exploring what “engagement” means in the context of the Internet, social media and online journalism. Readers and writers have to take on new obligations that result from the rise of social media and the decline of editorial gatekeepers who aim to demarcate the boundaries of journalism, art and propaganda. Thanks for encouraging dialogue on this important topic.

    You can read my recent article on this topic here:
    http://moritzlaw.osu.edu/students/groups/is/files/2013/08/12-Hobbs.pdf

    1. “As it turns out, we want to share works that require our active interpretation. We want to participate in a community of readers – and that’s what virality is all about.”

      But no one likes to be manipulated. The social experience is based on a mutual understanding of a perspective, deemed to be true from all sides.

    2. “Literary giants like Mark Twain, E.A. Poe and Walt Whitman recognized that stories can be true to the heart and the spirit without being based in facts.”

      Yes, but that’s called fiction and no one is confused about the truth status of fiction (I hope). Fiction serves a very important purpose, and journalism serves an entirely different purpose. The two things should not be muddled. If Gawker want to come out and say: “We produce fiction,” then no one would have a problem. The issue is when they produce fiction with the trappings of journalism.

  9. How about Gawker (and other news orgs, including PaidContent) add a simple badge system:

    Black: Doubtful
    Red: Not Verified
    Orange: Verified by a single source
    Green: Verified by multiple sources
    White: From the mouth of the Pope

  10. As Barry Hughart has it in ‘Bridge of Birds’ – “Fable has strong shoulders that carry far more truth than fact can” Urban myths or urban fables? Perhaps we need to believe them…

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