Topping the news recently were these three stories: An angry Baltimore mom demonstrates proper parenting techniques, an outspoken Pennsylvania dad schools local school leaders, and a Connecticut university president crashes a student party.
What do these news stories have in common? They all began on social media, went viral, and ultimately became “news” — a phenomenon clearly on the rise.
According to the Pew Research Center, “More visitors to Yahoo, NBC and other top Internet sites are getting their news from mobile devices than from desktop computers.”
In addition, “nearly half of Web users learn about politics and government from Facebook.”
This increasing reliance on mobile devices and social media sites is the perfect recipe for viral content. Question is, when does viral content constitute real news?
I came across the Baltimore mom story on Facebook where many people re-posted a video of this woman “disciplining her teenage son, after catching him participating in the Baltimore riots.”
“Discipline” in this case meant yelling at her boy and “smacking” him repeatedly.
“Toya Graham caught her son wearing a hoodie and a face mask, as he joined a crowd and began throwing objects at police,” reported Fox News Radio in the “Viral Videos” section of its website. “The no-nonsense mom dolled [sic] out a strong case of tough love that’s being applauded on social media.”
Graham’s story began appearing on national media outlets that labeled her “hero mom.” To her credit, she told interviewers on CBS News This Morning that she felt nothing of the sort.
But it was too late; a droll viral video had turned into a national news story that focused on a microscopic portion of a much more serious event — the Baltimore riots.
Sadly, this pattern is typical.
I read the second story — the Pennsylvania father’s tussle with a school district — on Yahoo’s home page while checking my e-mail.
This dad made national news after his own Facebook post went viral.
“When Mike Rossi qualified to run in the Boston Marathon, he made it clear to everyone at his children’s school that he planned to bring the entire family with him on his ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity,” according to countless news reports. “Last week, he did just that, cheered on by his 9-year-old twins as he crossed the finish line.”
“So that’s why the Pennsylvania dad was stunned to get a letter from the school principal upon his return, calling his brief vacation into question. Days missed ‘due to a family trip are not considered excused absences,’ she wrote.”
Not to be outdone, Rossi penned a response, claiming his kids “learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school.”
Not unlike media darling Toya Graham, Mike Rossi quickly became a role-model father capable of fashioning a “powerful response” to a school system’s “outdated and nonsensical” attendance policy.
And to think — it all began with a Facebook post.
The third story came to my attention, again, via social media when a Facebook friend and fellow Quinnipiac University alum posted a YouTube video of QU President John Lahey at an off-campus party. One day later, the video became news.
“A video of Quinnipiac University President John Lahey’s impromptu appearance at a May Weekend party has raised the ire of town officials and residents who say his comments about the party and jokes about buying more single-family homes for student housing were arrogant and insulting,” reported the New Haven Register.
“Our goal in town/gown relations is to discourage this type of behavior in residential neighborhoods,” Hamden Mayor James Pascarella said. “I am disappointed and concerned that this action is sending the wrong message on a variety of issues.”
This story – unlike the previous two – is worthy of the wider news coverage. The history of tenuous town/gown relations between Hamden and Quinnipiac make it so. In other words, the news outlets’ response to this viral event was legitimate and warranted.
That, in a nutshell, is the dilemma facing today’s major news outlets: determining when viral information deserves further news coverage, if any.
There’s no denying that people eat up viral content. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation admitted as much through a recent initiative, “Internet Action Force,” which promotes “the ‘Web’s weirdest’ content.”
But professional media outlets should draw a line between “the Web’s weirdest content” and “news.”
Unfortunately, that line is not just blurring; it has all but disappeared.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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