If Gen Y Use Buzzfeed For News, Are Listicles Ethically Responsible?

By: Jonathon Davidson

Buzzfeed is the go-to example of Millenial focused new media. ‘New Media’ is a term you’re probably used to if you’ve ever sat in a comms lecture for five minutes – it’s basically a blanket term for all websites that straddle the line between ‘blog’ and ‘news agency.’ Off the bat, we’ve already got some names that you’re likely familiar with – BuzzfeedVICEPedestrian.tv, Junkee and countless local independent brands scattered throughout cities everywhere, with Pilerats, Six Thousand and of course Rotunda Media fall into this bubble as well, just to name a few.

Clearly, it’s a mode of writing and publication that has found a stable foothold in contemporary pop culture. New Media is arguably the dominant form of Journalism preferred by Gen Y. And this is understandable – independent and accessible media content is absolutely preferable to the hastily produced and sensationalised news stories brought to us by traditional broadcast 9-5 agencies. Interestingly, and on a side note, Perth Now were technically just another new media label up until they got a helicopter and sold all the negative space on their webpage to advertisers. That’s all it took to make them legitimate – and that legitimisation came at a cost, as Perth Now are fucking awful these days (though they were never particularly good,) and it’s interesting to know that there seems to be a correlation between the acquisition of a helicopter and a general decrease in compelling, integrity bound Journalism. This seems just like TV broadcast media too, where the need to entice viewers with vague possibilites of danger and outrage take control of priority selection.

So, we’re only ever a helicopter away from selling our souls. But this is getting ranty and off topic, despite hopefully providing food for thought.

Sites like Buzzfeed though, and sites exactly like it which are Buzzfeedare not without their downfalls either. For example, the possible complete retardation of our generation. It is possible that we face just another source of endless, constant noise with new media, just more content competing with itself on a daily basis to grab attention and ultimately procuring the same disaffection in us all that has alienated Gen Y from Sunrise and Today Tonight – shows which are taken 100% seriously by production staff, for the record.

Where there are downfalls, there are also holistic criticisms. Buzzfeed, a media brand which dominates new media circles, are renowned for pop culture listices compiled from reaction gifs that follow a theme. Other articles on the website do the same pandering to celebrity gossip, again with the reaction gifs. Clearly, laws aren’t being broken here, but this kind of ironic ‘soft’ content is what leads to Buzzfeed’s well known image of illegitimacy as a news brand.

But ‘serious news’ is increasingly becoming the domain of new media, too. Buzzfeed ran a live update report when the Boston Bombings occurred, which lead to a number of inaccurate arrests and investigations of innocent people as a result of shoddy journalism – you can find out more about that particular case in the documentary called The Thread, which is on netflix, though be warned it was produced by luddites. Buzzfeed have also received praise among media academics for regularly and increasingly reporting openly on rape and rape culture, amongst other issues that fall into the social justice sphere. New Media’s undeniable feminist leaning has also lead to enhanced discussion on the patriarchy, and brought about what will possibly be called another “wave” in the future.

So, what I’m saying is, Buzzfeed are capable of being both cheesy and serious.

But if that capacity for seriousness is there, where does that put articles full of reaction gifs? If new media brands are preferred by Gen Y audiences, and there’s room for both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ content, then it’s possible that there’s room for synthesis in the future, where we might get daily news from hybrids between Buzzfeed and The New York Times. But what might that look like? Because I’m worried if it’s this:


On the other hand though, Buzzfeed have also published a well written feature  on the case of a woman who wasn’t able to have her rapist investigated by police because the cops thought she was lying. This is not the only well written feature available on Buzzfeed by far.

So, with those two contrasts in mind – what do we do with the unspoken agreement that new media is ‘low-form’? Is Buzzfeed more deserving of our serious attention? Or do Buzzfeed have a responsibility to start publishing purely research heavy content? I’m not sure, and I ask only to underline my general point, but I do think that synthesis is possible.

It’s no secret that a strict loyalty to ‘traditional media’ by anyone in Gen Y is the calling card of a decreasing but extremely resistant minority, one of which I was a part for quite some time. I do argue, though, that once a brand starts covering local county police cover-ups and features on misplaced indigenous children, they are quickly selling off the ethical right to then go and publish a 20-entry long list of Kim Karadashian updates.

This opinion clashes with the ethics of democracy, but at risk of sounding pro-censorship, what do reaction gif lists actually offer society?

On this broader issue, there are two schools of thought.

The first is that sites like Buzzfeed have a responsibility to be serious. This is decided knowing that new media has the power to ‘save’ disaffected audiences and rear them into politically active members of society, as the capacity to do so has been shown plenty of times in the last few years. In this way maybe it’s up to us to worship the ways of our elders – Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S – to work towards above all else being effective essayists, to combine the informal and formal in that rudimentary way still bound by the honest reporting of a story, with the honest inclusion of an inescapable bias. In this theory though, there’s no place for facebook memes.

A second school of thought says that there is no reason why serious content cannot exist alongside ’15 things your dog does that melts your heart’ or ‘the 5 top times Taylor Swift was totally buggin.’ Perhaps the eye grabbing, click baiting nature of these articles leads to a higher incidence of “serious news” consumption – it could be that listicles and reaction gifs are making otherwise ignorant populaces aware of greater societal injustices by nature of their being included in the website archives, and hyperlinked on the page.

While we figure out where we stand, there are so many things that will alter trajectory – social media, for instance, is a treacherous game of timing, corporate algorithms, PR and how well you can put spin on a blurb. Things will be different in 5 years, and they will be completely different again in 10. HTML5 offers a whole world of new ways to tell a story, and platforms like narrative.ly and squarespace are embracing these changes in web architecture to benefit journalism and progress the writing form into a new kind of new media. Also to be considered is the relevancy of journalists in contemporary culture – the Australian leadership spills put heavy emphasis on aussie journos, as has immigration reporting, Nightcrawler was pretty influential in a cult film sort of way and though I hate to admit it, independent local media comes hand in hand with hipster gentrification.

As young writers and readers, we need to make firm choices on where we stand on the relevance of Buzzfeed, on the permissibly of soft content, on whether or not to embrace or reject particular types of content. As media entities – individuals and brands alike – we need to open the discussion on new media’s place in 2016 so we can hopefully help create some kind of consensus, for or against, that will respond to the current evolution of all kinds of web content and old school media – right now, as any marketing manager will tell you, we are in one hell of a gray zone.