When was the last time you sat down and enjoyed a really good “hit piece” in your news feed — you know, the kind that leaves you crawling with rage toward someone or something? More importantly, if you had consumed something historically known as the “lowest form of journalism” (if we can call it that), would you even know it?
Most people wouldn’t — in large part because we’ve become so used to attack articles that we hardly blink when we see one more. Like the gamer whose compunction to violence has been dulled by hundreds of hours of Call of Duty, an eviscerating essay nowadays is more likely to prompt a yawn than a gasp.
That’s not a good thing. In fact, it’s a really bad thing because our collective search for truth as a society depends on the integrity of institutions like the press. And if we’ve casually come to accept something that defies all the classic ethical boundaries of journalism as an acceptable form of the trade, we’ve effectively left behind those ethics.
Imagine, for instance, if we began to accept body slams as an acceptable form of contact in basketball, then went on pretending it was still a normal basketball game we were watching. But, of course, it wouldn’t be. Body slams would fundamentally change the game.
In like manner, rhetorical slams in journalism change the game fundamentally.
You would think this kind of a shift would matter a lot. Indeed, there was a time when a “hit piece” stood out as a singular violation of crucial norms. We used to have pejorative terms for sensational, unethical “yellow journalism” — with bright lines drawn between this kind of bottom-dwelling “tabloid” fodder, and respectable press. But those bright lines have increasingly faded to the point of hardly being recognizable anymore.
While we’ll probably always be able to recognize the ridiculousness of a story about a celebrity who gave birth to an alien, it’s no longer shocking to come across scandalous headlines claiming insanely disturbing things about individuals or institutions.
This may be one reason that the Hunter Biden laptop story failed to get traction when it was first reported; it’s harder to know what passes for legitimate news anymore.
A “hit piece” is commonly defined as an attempt to damage a reputation or turn public opinion against someone or something under the appearance or guise of objective reporting. The free dictionary defines it as “a very critical attack on someone or something” often involving “information that is biased, misleading, or completely false.”
It’s precisely the calculated efforts to appear objective while presenting misleading information that makes a hit piece hard to spot. In consultation with journalism professor Joel Campbell and the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists, here are five questions to help any of us discern when we’re reading something actually designed to cause harm, instead of illuminating reality.
1. Is there any genuine curiosity and intellectual humility evident in the investigation, or does the answer seem predetermined?
It’s been said that, “A journalist writes an investigative piece, ideally, because he wants to find answers. A journalist writes a hit piece because he believes he already has the answers.”
Just like a legitimate research study is open to hearing answers that defy its initial hypothesis, so also legitimate journalism ought to have the humility of discovering (and disclosing) nuance not in line with its implicit narrative. Do you see any evidence of that kind of genuine openness in that next eye-catching article?
One simple way to gauge intellectual humility is determining to what extent other perspectives relevant to the issue or conversation are being acknowledged. A sure sign of zero curiosity is to have a whole pile of quotes propounding one perspective — and little to no representation of any alternative views (or only poor and weak-sounding examples at best). Keep an eye on that ratio.
2. How serious and rigorous is the investigation? Could it withstand scrutiny by others without a dog in the fight?
Every hit piece claims some serious research. For some people, even hearing that word “research” causes their brains to stop thinking. Yet in our age of activist science, the opposite should be true: We need to think for ourselves, asking how serious is the investigation behind the article. It doesn’t take a graduate student to detect signs of shoddy research and incomplete investigations.
3. Are there any obvious conflicts of interest that hint at ways the author stands to gain something from the writing?
This has long been a classic standard of journalistic integrity but is too often overlooked, especially in new forms of media. In one case where a popular YouTube channel was unfairly attacked for being racist, one writer pointed out how much the critic “stands to gain considerably” from ruining the individual’s reputation and thereby removing “some of their biggest competition.” Are there any signs of similar advantages (monetary, reputation, cultural standing) accrued to the author of something you are reviewing?
4. Does the author sound angry, agenda driven or rigidly ideological in some way?
This one isn’t easy to spot. As Eric Wemple once clarified, a hit piece “connotes intent, a plan to go out and get the subject. That’s a tall evidentiary threshold.”
None of us know another’s heart. But that doesn’t mean we’re blind to intent. Do a gut-check: does this article or video feel like a screed, or actual honest inquiry?
5. Is the author acknowledging any positives in what is being critiqued?
It’s rare to find anyone or anything wholly devoid of humanity or goodness. Most human beings are complex, and even Darth Vader had some good in him in the end. Honest and healthy journalism is willing to acknowledge good where it exists — even and especially when it conflicts with an otherwise critical narrative.
If that doesn’t come through at all — if the author doesn’t even seem capable of saying, “You know, I have some serious questions about this, but there is still a whole lot of good here” — then pay close attention.
Ultimately, this may be the surest sign of a damning hit piece: no indication of any redemption possible for the person or group being scrutinized.
Rather than seeking to build and elevate, the aim is to tear down and demolish. For many “woke” minds in our day, that’s essentially the plan to work toward a better world. If that’s the sort of thing that effectively takes over not only journalism, but our universities too, then there can be no doubt that it’s redemption we all truly need.
So, think twice (or three times) when you see scandalous allegations being made. Standards for healthy journalism still matter, and junk journalism can cause real harm. But you and I can tell the difference.
Jacob Hess is the editor of Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”