(AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)
Anita Varma is the program manager for Journalism & Media Ethics as well as Business, Leadership, and Social Sector Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
“#IStandWithJussie,” Twitter announced on January 29, 2019 as a trending hashtag. Clicking the hashtag brought up a slew of celebrities, politicians, and fans declaring and affirming each other’s staunch repudiations of a hate crime against actor Jussie Smollett during which the attackers shouted, “This is MAGA country!” From presidential candidates to comedians to activists and allies, a wave of defiance swept social media and news outlets as people insisted that they would not remain silent in the wake of such a horrific attack.
Jussie Smollett is gay, Black, and an actor based in Chicago. The intersections of being a gay Black man made him more than an unlucky individual who encountered hatred on a random evening: Smollett became a symbol of the worst fears for people of marginalized identities realized in the current political climate—which cemented his newsworthiness.
The details of the attack sounded like it was lifted out of a television scene that would require parental advisory before airing: MAGA supporters literally whitewashing a Black man (by throwing bleach), beating, and shouting epithets.
When Smollett was arrested for allegedly falsifying the attack and planting evidence, the same prominent people who pledged solidarity shifted gears on social media to express dismay at Smollett’s actions, and hastened to contend that hate crimes are nevertheless on the rise in America – such that even if Smollett’s claims were fabricated and staged, the issue of gay Black men in America being particularly vulnerable to attacks should not also be dismissed as theatrical fiction. Solidarity with Smollett shifted to solidarity with victims of hate crimes—most of whom remained unnamed in the subsequent coverage as discourse focused on statistics and trend lines.
CNN, for example, posted an article called “Hate crimes are rising, regardless of Jussie Smollett's case. Here's why.” Despite a promising headline, the brief article does not supply an explanation for why hate crimes are on the rise—and instead provides a list of ways to assess the increase in hate crimes by listing several and providing statistics on reported hate crimes (also noting that many hate crimes go unreported).
In a moment when journalists and major news outlets make frequent pledges to independently report truth, Smollett’s manipulation and leverage of major media platforms should give us pause. Far from a Russian troll or woefully naïve consumers in need of media literacy lessons, Smollett duped top commentators, reporters, and social media personalities with hundreds of thousands of followers.
Smollett is unlikely to symbolize a relatable victim anymore (though a final verdict has not been reached at the time of this writing). Instead, he should symbolize the ethical issues with entrenched routines of American reporting. These routines, which nudge reporters toward remaining staunchly focused on individual actors who rise above tumult and terror, create prime conditions for individuals to take advantage of the ways in which news outlets and social media norms can be relied upon to amplify the stories they stage—as long as the story contains the drama, timeliness, and fight of good-versus-evil that make a good story. Ensuring veracity quickly loses to capitalizing on virality.
With a preoccupation on theatrical confrontations between lovable victims and evil villains, and by seeking out symbolism to affirm narratives of who is “good” and who is “evil,” news outlets set themselves up to be manipulated—not only, though certainly, by bots and fabricated claims from authoritarian governments, but also by an actor who was wrong in his actions but not in his assessment that news media and social media could be easily mobilized to stand with an individual who fit the bill of a “deserving” victim.
The Jussie Smollett scandal leaves all of us who are part of the news ecosystem with a challenge: how can we move past highly individualized, pathos-laden, dramatic narratives that predictably affirm social roles ascribed to victims and villains and move toward greater substantive inclusion that would make the conversation not about Smollett but about the thousands of people who experience hate crimes and the factors that contribute to these crimes? Doing so will require representing lived experiences as part of a larger fabric that makes solidarity with an individual meaningless, and solidarity with marginalized communities crucial.
For starters, we should begin to pause and begin to parse dominant narratives that prevail in daily reporting. Fairy tales and blockbuster films involve climaxes of fights between heroes and villains, but grappling with lived realities in the present moment warrants multidimensional narratives that represent complexity instead of flattening it. With more complex techniques for representing attacks and issues—that avoid myopic spotlights on a single individual in isolation of the larger issue—reporters might move public discourse toward coming to terms with more complex truths.