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The Apocalypsticle: Better-Than-Nothing Tabloid Journalism or the Plague of New Media?

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, February 25 2014

Kiev, February 18, 2014 (Аимаина хикари/Wikipedia)

The age old truism “A picture is worth a thousand words” is once again up for debate. Sarah Kendzior, writing for Politico, threw down the gauntlet in the article “The Day We Pretended to Care About Ukraine,” in which she criticizes the use of “apocalypsticles” to cover events in Ukraine as mere clickbait. Emily Bell responded in The Guardian, writing that listicles are valuable precisely because they are accessible, and to criticize a media form for catering to non-elites is “perverse.”

Bizarrely, the debate outlined above is almost overshadowed by digs at competing media outlet Buzzfeed. Kendzior writes, “Ask not what Buzzfeed can do for Ukrainians, but what dying Ukrainians can do for Buzzfeed.”

In her response Bell writes that Kendzior “had either not been reading Buzzfeed's excellent and extensive coverage of the crisis, or was choosing to ignore it and focus on the photos.” She also points out that Politico is in competition with “Buzzfeed's increasingly impressive editorial presence.”

Others have observed that Kendzior neglects to mention Politico's own Ukraine “apocalypsticles.”

Media politics aside, both Kendzior and Bell make interesting points about the value, or lack thereof, of listicles.

Kendzior's most salient paragraph:

Unfortunately, the answer to the activist’s question of “why” is ignored in a clickbait competition where a picture is worth zero words. The only “wh-“ word that matters is “whoa”: Look at the fire, the water, the bullets, the blood. Look, but do not listen. Look inward, at the movie you watched that looked like Ukraine, at the painting you saw that looked like Ukraine. Look at Ukraine without seeing Ukraine.

Bell's measured response:

The overall point Kendzior made is as old as the use of conflict images themselves: don't just look at the pictures, read the context. The broader question lurking here is whether there is such a thing as "the wrong kind of attention".

Is it "too trivial" for complex geopolitical stories to use the same techniques used to list examples of horses that look like Miley Cyrus? This is a perverse reaction to an interesting phenomenon: the remaking of an effective tabloid press. Media that aims to be accessible, that seeks to engage and inform people outside elites, has a valuable mission. Engagement with Ukrainian politics might begin and end with a "disaster porn" slideshow nine times out of 10, but what of the tenth individual who goes on to read more? For younger audiences or those disengaged from the mainstream media, one thing is sure: that the exploration of an alien topic will very rarely start with a 5,000-word article in Foreign Policy.

Bell concludes:

The digital news industry struggles with creating metrics that mean something, or that demonstrate understanding and activity as the result of reading. Attention and engagement are slippery concepts, and impact even more so. How do we know whether the stream of images consumed around geopolitical violence will result in raised awareness, greater democratic engagement, or a desensitisation [sic]? Well, we don't. We can however safely assume that even if you agree with the maxim "a little learning is a dangerous thing", it must be balanced by the idea that we all must start somewhere. Beyond that, more research is needed.

The conversation on Twitter split into roughly four camps: new media pessimists, new media optimists, Buzzfeed detractors and Buzzfeed defenders (or employees).

One point that really did not come up in either piece is why nobody was writing about Ukraine (not even in listicle form!) before things took a violent turn. Here at techPresident we asked at the end of January: “Revolution in Ukraine Has Been Live Streamed For Two Months. When Will the West Start to Care?

Apparently, nobody likes a peaceful protest-icle.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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