The greatest act of journalism this year wasn’t carried out by a journalist. It was by a comedian.
John Oliver, a British transplant on American soil, did what, to that point, no journalist had been able to do in 2014. Oliver took on a massively important but brain-bleedingly dull topic – net neutrality, which the entire journalism world had struggled with for months – and did something spectacular. He went beyond making people understand and care, to the point that they actually took action to change it.
His HBO slot sent tens of thousands of commenters to the FCC website to comment immediately, crashing the site. The long-tail effect has been dramatic, with 4.6million YouTube views driving a lot of traffic. Before Oliver’s piece, there were around 10,000 coments on the FCC website. In the 24 hours after the show, that multiplied by five, and the site crash. Right now there are more than 647,000 comments lodged with the FCC, who have agreed to keep comments open beyond the deadline because the site CRASHED AGAIN.
Oliver’s slot launched a thousand news pieces, which caused the initial effect to mushroom. In doing so, Oliver basically showed the traditional journalism world how we’ve all been doing it wrong all along. News can, all at once, be entertaining, informative, attention-holding and inspirational – not the insipid inspirational of Upworthy headlines either, the real kind of inspirational, which prompts you to act.
Here’s Why It Should Redefine Explanatory Journalism
Journalism’s first job is to win your attention, and hold it long enough to get an idea across. Good journalism is then, ideally, something you can act on. It helps you make a decision. It may help you decide how to keep yourself healthy, how to stay out of danger or avoid risk – or what to buy, consume, enjoy, etc. That’s easy to do in the feature sections. Hard news journalism has a tougher time of it. You’re not likely to make decisions based on the latest chess moves in Ukraine or the typhoon in Japan (unless you have flights booked) but the stories might help you understand shifts in the prices of some things, or what is affecting other people you may care about. It may also, obviously, just help you understand the world.
As a journalist, there are some stories, however, which you really want to hit home with an audience and inspire action, and they’re often the hardest ones to get people excited about. Sometimes you pour effort, time and money into them, and despite their worthiness, they just refuse to deliver. Take, for example, Propublica’s $750,000 investigation into the dangers of Tylenol/acetaminophen. The value versus impact of that has been the source of plenty of debate. Definitely a story worth telling, definitely a topic you want people to get energized about, but not necessarily one with which it is easy to do so. Dosage information on juvenile drugs just isn’t that fun. Or at least, it hasn’t been to date.
That’s why Oliver’s achievement is so important. He showed that it is possible; not with worthy, interminable features, but with concise, entertaining explanations that don’t beat the audience with guilt or sadness. Add some wit, speak directly to the audience in a way they instantly GET & ENJOY, and you can pretty much tackle any topic you want–which Oliver has with his new show (FIFA corruption, the death penalty, false balance in climate change reporting, the Syria crisis – the list goes on). Journalists talk a lot about balancing the diet they feed to their audience, making sure they balance the broccoli with the chocolate. John Oliver just made chocolate broccoli.
With his hilarious rant explaining net neutrality–which potentially affects everyone who uses the internet– Oliver left viewers understanding a very boring, complex issue, thereby outdoing the new crop of explainer sites, and everyone else on the internet, who gratefully doffed their caps to him and embedded the video.
“Seize your moment, my lovely trolls. Turn on Caps Lock and Fly”
At the end of the piece, Oliver went further, and did a straight-up call to action to the trolls among his watchers on HBO and YouTube to go and comment on the FCC website and try to make a difference. Oliver nailed his colours to the mast. Screw false balance and letting the reader decide if it’s worth taking action. He called out a perceived injustice, and said “You should all act on this – WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING”. And lo, they did.
Here’s the description of the slot under the YouTube video:
“Cable companies are trying to create an unequal playing field for internet speeds, but they’re doing it so boringly that most news outlets aren’t covering it.
John Oliver explains the controversy and lets viewers know how they can voice their displeasure to the FCC.”
Newspapers will wring hands and say they simply can’t do the same and remain objective. That’s poppycock. Sure, there plenty of times when it’s important that every side gets a hearing and bald facts must be simply laid out for the reader. But where the greater good is clearly served with a rallying cry, hard news tends to shy away from it. Looking at ProPublica’s acetaminophen story, the lavish multimedia presentation doesn’t contain a direct call to action, excepting those prompting people to support ProPublica, share comments, or otherwise. But there isn’t a link to, say, the FDA’s consumer reporting mechanism with instructions on how to make things extremely uncomfortable for Tylenol, should you be so inclined. The New York Times’ much-vaunted piece on Dasani, a homless girl in New York, is broken into five parts, but doesn’t facilitate any action by the reader.
The main takeaway from Oliver’s piece, though, is tone. Getting people to understand boring but important stories is like worming a dog – you have to put the pill in a sausage to get him to swallow. Oliver used the hot dog of humour to get America to swallow the pill of net neutrality, and they ate it up. Was the message belittled or eroded by the humour? No. Did it reach a few million people more than, say, most of the journalism about net neutrality to date? Probably. Did it inspire tens of thousands of people to take the first step towards halting a major injustice? Definitely.
For all the innovations, digital bells & whistles, scrollkits and html5 wizardry we’ve all tried to bring to journalism, the key thing is understanding an audience and how to balance the truth with the titillation, educational with the entertaining in a way that neither is compromised and the message hits home. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s mighty powerful when it’s done well. Chapeau, Mr Oliver, Chapeau.