INSIGHTS: When sensationalism takes center stage

Anna Huntsman

In September, I was asked to cover the cancellation of Kent State’s fall musical “West Side Story” for KentWired and TV2. I later did a radio version of the piece for WKSU, Kent’s member NPR station, and the article was picked as the cover story for the Thursday, Sept. 27, edition of The Kent Stater.

I received positive feedback from peers, faculty members and, most importantly, the theater students who shared their stories with me. After that week, I thought my involvement with the story was over.

I thought wrong.

A week later on Oct. 2, I discovered several national media outlets, including Fox News, British tabloid Daily Mail and the conservative college publication Campus Reform ran similar versions of the story.

These media organizations re-worded some of my original reporting and presented it in a misleading manner by focusing on the most controversial parts of the story. They lifted quotes from my interviews without contacting the people I talked to on their own. They did not ask my permission to include my video on their sites.

The outlets portrayed one of the Kent State theater students I interviewed, who asked not to be named in this story, in a negative light by using her quotes out of context. Peers and professors agreed the stories were done unfairly. In fact, one quote from Fox News does not appear anywhere in my story or video.

Some readers of these national outlets — I will go as far as to use the term “internet trolls” — began harassing the student on social media. She temporarily deactivated her Facebook account as a result. They also wrote obscene comments on WKSU’s YouTube video of her.

When a student journalist’s work is used in or inspires a national outlet’s story, it is usually an exciting opportunity. While I would otherwise celebrate that a story I wrote was getting national attention, in this case, I could not. Not when media ethics were thrown to the side and, worst of all, a Kent State student was facing online harassment.

National outlets aggregate content from smaller, regional news organizations daily, and this is not always unethical. The issue here is that the outlets, specifically Campus Reform and Fox News, took quotes I gathered from my own reporting rather than contacting the sources themselves.

Kathleen Bartzen Culver, the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the ethics issues in this case are clear.

“Because a writer is using those quotes in the story, they have an obligation to be proportional to the original,” Culver said. “But instead, they’re cherry-picking to sensationalize the story, and that’s the problem.”

The Campus Reform and Fox News articles sensationalized aspects of my original story. I worked diligently alongside KentWired editors to make sure both sides of the controversial situation were included, and the broader conversation about representation in casting was thoroughly explained.

The intent of my original story was to shed light on a local example of whitewashed casting, not one student being upset about not getting a role, as some of the national stories make it seem.

“This is an age-old journalism ethics concern, and everybody knows it by one word, and that’s sensationalism,” Culver said. “What happens in these ideologically driven stories that you see on Campus Reform is that they are sensationalizing and removing the proportionality of the elements of the story, so they are making it seem bigger than it actually is.”

The national headlines were prime examples of sensational clickbait. In this case, the headlines appeared biased or just plain inaccurate. For example, Daily Mail’s headline said the musical was canceled “after fury that whites were cast.”

But that’s not the case. There are plenty of white characters in “West Side Story,” so it made sense to cast white students in those specific roles. The “fury,” to use their word choice, was because some of the Latinx roles were not given to Latinx students — students who are talented and qualified to receive them. The students were not upset about not getting their “dream roles”; they were concerned about the lack of representation in the cast of a musical that gives an opportunity for Latinx voices to be heard.

The national outlets hijacked the controversial aspects of the story, slapped on a catchy headline and posted their versions, sparking social media discussion and fueling the fire of internet trolls, who made comments Culver called “deeply troubling.”

“These conversations are happening all the time in the entertainment industry,” she said. “But what has happened to (the student) is that she is the subject of online abuse, and she is made a target because of the choices that were made by this outlet to cherry-pick and sensationalize for partisan reasons, and that’s wrong.”

Culver also questioned the extent to which these “ideological outlets” consider the same responsibilities and ethics adhered to by journalists.

As cliché as it sounds, a large part of a journalist’s job is to give voice to others. When I started reporting this story, I knew the topic was controversial. Everywhere one turns, one can find a different take on what it means to provide representation and inclusivity in workplaces, schools and theater casts.

I knew it was my job as a reporter to listen and accurately share student concerns, rather than give my own opinion or make the students and faculty look good (or bad). The piece soon became less about what happened at Kent State and far more about what representation in casting looks like in the musical theater industry today, and whether that can be achieved at the collegiate level.

It was not my job to add to the controversy in the theater school, nor to the concerns students were already facing. My editor and I worked tirelessly to provide fair, objective and truthful reporting, while also showcasing an important conversation happening at Kent State that is part of a larger national dialogue in the theater industry.

By the way, the outlets that said the “play” was canceled are wrong. I’m expressing this both as a journalist trying to be as accurate as possible and as a long-time theater nerd:

“West Side Story” is a musical, not a play.

Anna Huntsman is an enterprise reporter. Contact her at [email protected].