When a news item goes viral

“As a journalist, you spend so much time plugging away at stories that you hope will impact society. Then, suddenly, you hit on a sexy banker who lost her job, and, delighted as you are, you can’t help but wonder:

“Is this what it takes to be talked about all over the world?”

Writer Elizabeth Dwoskin broke the story that was talked about round the world for a few days in June. Her cover story in New York’s Village Voice about Debrahlee Lorenzana, the “shapely” woman who was fired from Citibank and subsequently filed a lawsuit claiming she was let go for being too attractive, went “viral” within hours of hitting the web. At one point, Dwoskin’s story was the seventh most popular English-language Google search in the world.

As the story evolved, and other media jumped on it, revealing that Lorenzana had previously had two breast augmentation surgeries, hers became the 32Ds talked about and ogled around the globe. Google her name now and you’ll find 66,000,000 entries for a woman who had been relatively unknown before this story broke.

The tale of the woman who is allegedly too sexy for her job was widely covered by mainstream newspapers, wires, radio and network and cable television — though it received modest play in the Star: one 469-word wire story on Page A29 in the newspaper, with a photo of Lorenzana looking both businesslike and hot. Online, we published the same photo and story, promoted on the home page, and one more brief follow-up story.

Elsewhere, coverage was far more sensational. Photos and video of Lorenzana in form-fitting office attire and outfits that revealed even more of her assets were featured on YouTube and photo-sharing sites. This story was blogged, tweeted and commented on endlessly. On the Village Voice website alone, Dwoskin’s story received nearly 600 comments — nearly 10 times more than any story she’d ever written.

Is this indeed what it takes to be talked about around the world? Dwoskin’s question is one many journalists are wrestling with in our digital era in which the “herding mentality” of the web means that news and information can be transmitted further and faster than ever before in history, potentially amplifying traditional markers of journalistic “success” — the reach and influence of a story.

As Dwoskin writes in a thoughtful analysis entitled “Watching my story go viral in twenty-four hours,” published in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review: “Having one’s story go viral has become a huge barometer of success.”

But should it be? Dwoskin says the Lorenzana story was neither her best nor most important story. “No one expected the media frenzy that followed. . . In the span of 24 hours it had transformed from a very interesting feature to something like breaking news of national and even international import.”

Neither Dwoskin’s CJR article nor this column are intended to be rants about how journalism is going to hell in a handbasket because of the Internet. The Lorenzana story, while not the sort of news that serves to better democracy in any significant way, still turns on a lawsuit against one of America’s largest banks. At its heart are eternal themes about power and beauty, money and influence and the battle of the sexes.

It’s a compelling human interest story — “the ultimate water cooler story” a friend of the writer suggested. And no one doubts that the alluring photos of the stunning brunette banker drove this story.

Dwoskin posits that the story was “fascinating in its own right but its success also depended on the herding mentality and the web’s tendency to legitimize commentary as news.”

For me, Dwoskin’s piece provides a fascinating case study in the ongoing evolution of media and journalism and the perennial question of how to appeal to audiences while remaining faithful to journalism’s higher ideals. It’s also an intriguing example of the power of a technology that links all the computers in the world in real time, offering the potential to connect and communicate as never before.

The CJR piece raises many questions. How much do the vagaries of what titillates people online now influence the news agenda? When something goes viral online, does that make it news? Should the herd set the news agenda? This week, both, the Star and the National Post devoted prominent space to stories based on events that went viral on YouTube. The Post gave over most of its front page to video images of a kitty in a dumpster. Increasingly, the mainstream media are spotlighting viral videos.

How should journalists harness the vast reach and power of the digital universe? Shouldn’t we aim for a more significant measure of success than a “water cooler” story going viral?

It’s hardly surprising to see a story about a sexy banker with ample cleavage go viral. But if this is the new bar for journalism, perhaps that too is something that should be talked about — even if that debate doesn’t quite go viral.

This column was originally published in The Toronto Star on Aug. 28, 2010.

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