Why the Media Actually Loves Racism

If you work for a news site or blog, you know that a high-profile instance of racism is a web traffic godsend.
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If you work for a news site or blog, you know that a high-profile instance of racism is a web traffic godsend.
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The amount of wordage spent vilifying racist Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is astounding.

It’s not that he doesn’t deserve the ample backlash or the lifetime ban handed down by NBA commissioner Adam Silver. He does. But at a certain point, the coverage becomes redundant, to put it mildly. Even more interesting is the sinister air of gleefulness that lingers above it all. That gleefulness is a direct byproduct of the world of online media and its mission to meet demand head on with a relentless bombardment of news articles, op-eds, listicles, and other pieces about the disaster of the week. If you work for a news site or blog, you know that a high-profile instance of racism is a web traffic godsend.

A quick look at Google Trends through Tuesday confirms this:

sterlingbeyoncegod

Since Saturday, Donald Sterling has been googled more than Beyoncé and god. What’s especially surprising is that even though Beyoncé released a new song, Sterling searches still dominated. And in case you’re wondering, Sterling also beat Justin Bieber in a landslide.

Going back further, how does Sterling stack up against arguably the biggest story of the last two months?

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As you might have expected MH370 — the missing Malaysia Airlines flight – has been googled more than Sterling overall since March 8, when it disappeared. MH370′s peak came on March 24 when it was announced that it had crashed into the Indian Ocean — a major news development. Yet even with that dramatic disclosure about an event with international appeal, Sterling’s single day peak was still higher.

The graphs above show only the relative search volumes of keywords (topics). They don’t explicitly say anything about the subjects’ popularity on social media. But obviously there is a strong correlation between the two.

So the Sterling story has definitely been a viral phenomenon, which is understandable.

It’s not every day the owner of a sports team in the second largest media market in a predominantly black league is caught on tape telling his partially black girlfriend he doesn’t want her associating with black people – all while his team is competing in the playoffs. Add these together and you’ve got enough to make a viral feast for the whole internet. But how do you combine the ingredients to make a decent meal?

Not long after MH370 disappeared and CNN’s coverage of it reached absurd heights, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes brilliantly explained the fundamental problem news outlets face when a huge story has broken. Although he was analyzing cable news, his observations apply just as well to social media, albeit with some slight differences. The team at All In produced this graphic:

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Outlets can satisfy initial demand for news about an event by providing basic information about the story through original reporting, or by reporting what someone else already has. They can also supply the audience with some context, history, and peripheral information connected with, but not directly related to the event. But reporting, context, and history inevitably give way to opinion and perhaps even pure speculation. And all of them — reporting, context, history, opinion, and speculation — get inflated to artificial levels in an effort to satisfy demand.

This is very similar to what happens in online news. When a big story breaks, typically it’s the larger news sites that dominate search traffic. This is because they enjoy high page rankings on Google, whose search algorithms give priority in search results to sites that already have high amounts of traffic. That’s why when you google a trending topic, the top results are often stories from USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, ESPN, and so forth. These large, traditional outlets have the resources necessary to do lots of original reporting and break major news. This kind of story doesn’t need to be packaged into a list or have a clever headline to take off on social media because the mere shock and impact of it will be enough. But this phase doesn’t last very long.

A spin around the internet at 7pm on Tuesday showed that Sterling was big news, with many major sites running with him as their lead. The New York Times homepage was a classic example of straightforward “objective” reporting.

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Homepages are a reflection of the way sites want to be viewed by the public. This is their “brand.” The Times brand is one of prestige exemplified by great and far-reaching reporting with a no-nonsense approach to news. You can see that approach in action in their stories about Sterling, whose headlines very clearly tell the reader what they’re in for.

As additional information is being gathered about a new story, outlets with much smaller staffs that rely almost solely on social media to proliferate content begin to jump into the fold. Typically these are news blogs or sites that craft content specifically with the aim of getting as many shares on Facebook as possible. (Twitter shares help too, but Facebook traffic is where it’s at. Sorry, Google+.) And if you’re a website with few or no legitimate reporters on the payroll — let alone multiple bureaus — the way you grab a slice of the demand is by coming up with unique and often counter-intuitive story angles that can be captured in clickable headlines. Or you break the whole thing down into an easily digestible list, timeline, chart, or other infographic. And if somebody could’ve somehow found a way to mapify Sterling’s racism during his search peak, they’d have been crowned Monarch of the Internet for a few days.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that smaller sites don’t break stories or can’t do great original reporting. It also doesn’t mean the larger, more traditional outlets don’t produce the type of viral content your friends are sharing on Facebook. It just means that the two types of news sites more often than not specialize in two different aspects of covering news.

Take Salon, which is the internet’s premier producer of articles on racism — both real and imagined. Its feature story Tuesday night was a thoughtful piece by Joan Walsh with a clickbaity headline that elevated the NBA commissioner to the level of some sort of mystical karma dispenser.

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At work here is the glee that was referenced in the first paragraph.

Whenever someone says something racist, it’s repulsive. But there’s also a certain catharsis that comes with telling that person off. At a certain level people love to be outraged, and no one does outrage better than Salon. The headline is inviting us to click and bask in the justice that’s been meted out. The teaser conveys the idea that NBA shares your outrage and that you are not alone. As an added bonus, the teaser also induces curiosity by alluding to Sterling’s “other victims.” What other victims? Click and find out.

Of course, an article’s homepage headline and its Facebook headline are often different. In this case, the Facebook headline is Donald Sterling’s stunning comeuppance: The supreme satisfaction of swift action. Salon lays it bare here with the word “satisfaction.” Again, catharsis.

Then there was Slate. You can’t tell it’s Slate from the screenshot because its new homepage doesn’t want you to know where you are. Although if you work for the Clippers, according to the story on the top right, you’re on a plantation.

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The feature story is a classic example of a counter narrative. The typically liberal Slate is daring to buck the trend of liberal opinion on Sterling by saying that no, the NBA shouldn’t forcibly take away his team. Interestingly the Facebook headline is much tamer: Donald Sterling Should Sell the Clippers, but the NBA Shouldn’t Force Him to Do It. While it’s been shared about 2,000 times, a more blunt and provocative headline would likely have yielded more shares. Impressively, the piece has generated more than 1,000 comments.

The “plantation” headline over-promises. Those who clicked hoping to find anything akin to Paula Deen’s dream of a “southern plantation wedding” exited the page disappointed. Meanwhile, William Saletan spent hundreds of words denouncing the comparison of Sterling to Brendan Eich by some bloggers you’ve never heard of. The Mondeybox story asks a poignant question, while the white void to its right may very well represent the emptiness of Sterling’s soul.

Meanwhile, The Nation channeled BuzzFeed with a listicle, but one by Dave Zirin so it was a worthwhile read.

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And then of course there’s Fox News being Fox News. Here was its lead story while all this was going on.

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I wish this were a joke because it would be a funny one, but this really was the lead. It’s kind of admirable in a strange way, like a giant middle finger to the rest of the internet.

In all likelihood, the Donald Sterling fiasco has reached its peak. And what a peak it was. Audio of blatant racism by a white billionaire who employs a mostly black team to make him money followed by a lifetime ban from the NBA was in many ways a perfect viral storm. Short of murder or sexual assault, it’s hard to imagine what else Sterling could’ve done to garner anything close to the amount of coverage he’s gotten. Racism is still very common, and yet we never seem completely sure how to react to it, let alone eliminate it. Until we arrive at that racial Shangri-La, we’ll always have our Donald Sterlings. And until we get rid of them, we’ll revel in their existence.