It hasn't been a good month for digital properties. Reports of "churnalism" -- the rewording and publishing of press releases without second opinions or any fact-checking to verify the information therein -- are becoming increasingly common even among major media outlets. The resulting clicky posts quickly spread, trickling down to smaller blog networks and independent bloggers, misinforming readers all over the world. It's, without a doubt, one of the biggest problems of fast coverage.
But there is another aspect of digital properties that has recently come under fire, and that is the high incidence of opinion pieces on popular blog networks that are more about link-baiting than they are about offering a genuine opposing view of an issue.
The most recent incident of this form of reckless link-baiting unfolded at xoJane.com, a women's lifestyle site, where staff "health critic" Cat Marnell wrote a piece about birth control.
I have read the piece several times and I am still not 100 percent sure I understand it, but it appears that Marnell is saying that women need to stop using Plan B, the morning-after pill, as a method of birth control. The reason the piece is confusing is that instead of listing all the reasons that Plan B is not a good idea as a contraceptive, Marnell offers a six-item list detailing why she can't stand all the other methods of birth control, thus explaining why she abuses Plan B. The piece closes with a vague two paragraphs about how women need to "stop letting dudes come inside of us."
Photo by M. Markus.
Needless to say, the comment section of the piece exploded (reaching 863 comments as of the writing of this post). This is where the piece took a severe turn for the worse. Not only does her in-post list put forth inaccurate information about various contraceptives, Marnell also personally responded to any commenter suggesting other methods of birth control by noting more erroneous information. In response to a commenter who asked "what about diseases?" Marnell responded, "yeah yeah, i get blood tested a lot though. I mean, what's the worst that can happen?"
There's "health critic" and then there's unforgivably reckless.
Needless to say, the internet exploded. Finally, Jane Pratt, founder of xoJane.com issued a response. The 684-word response basically said, "At xoJane.com, we embrace a diversity of opinions."
Jane Pratt was the founding editor of the now-defunct teen magazine, Sassy, as well as founding editor of the women's magazine Jane, which folded in 2007. For those of us who grew up with it, Sassy was irreverent and unafraid to approach sex in a way that no other teen magazine did. I could relate to the writers of Sassy, and the content was often helpful without being patronizing. It was like having a tête-à-tête over hot cocoa while painting our toe nails and watching Sixteen Candles with a girlfriend who was more experienced than you.
Jane, which came some years after Sassy folded, was similar, only targeted to an older audience -- the girls who had once loved Sassy and who were now all grown up. As editor of Jane, Pratt was named "Editor of the Year" by AdWeek in 2002.
Pratt, who resigned two years before Jane released its last issue, returned to the limelight in 2011 with xoJane.com, a website for women that Pratt described as, "not snarky, but inclusive and uplifting, while remaining nothing but honest at all times. Like Sassy and Jane before it, xoJane.com is written by a group of women (and some token males) with strong voices, identities and opinions, many in direct opposition to each other, who are living what they are writing about." Almost two months after the site officially launched, Forbes named it one the top 10 lifestyle websites for women.
Clearly, Pratt is a woman who has experience as an editor and who knows the female audience. Unfortunately, I don't think diversity justifies the content of Cat Marnell's post. As the section editor of Love & Sex and interim Health editor on BlogHer, I understand the desire to have diversity in the pieces in my sections. But there is also a certain level of responsibility that comes with giving a platform to dissenting opinions that could harm others.
A well-argued piece in support of voluntary euthanasia, for example, is more useful than a reckless how-to guide to suicide. By the same token, a guide about healthy dietary changes is more useful than a destructive piece about how being more accepting of anorexia could help rid us of the obesity epidemic we're seeing.
The question any writer and editor should ask herself or himself is "how helpful is this information?" It is true that humor makes it easier to discuss topics that are difficult or boring, and that casual writing styles and irreverent attitudes help readers feel like the writer is speaking with them as opposed to lecturing them, but we can't allow the allure of page views to cloud our judgment.
Pratt is resting on the fact that the title she gave Marnell is "health critic" -- but nothing in the post suggests that she is merely an in-house troll. The signature at the end of the piece, "Follow Cat at @cat_marnell on Twitter and tell her how much you don't like her. She is USED to it. #violins" acts more as a deterrent than a clear description. All it tells a reader is, "ha ha! I don't care what you think! I'm not here to talk to you! This is my platform, nyah nyah nyah!" So much for fostering the voices of dissent.
And anyway, wouldn't dissent be illustrated more brilliantly by including a link to another column on the site by a health writer who knows what she's talking about?
I understand that a lot of bigger blogs have too many pieces going live too quickly for editors to read everything that is being published and very often, senior editors only find out about a questionable piece as a result of a complaint, but I think it is critical for editors to move quickly to correct the issue.
In the case of the piece in question, the founder of xoJane.com issued two statements on the topic, the lengthy one previously mentioned, and a second one, where Pratt notes: "In terms of the factual inaccuracies in the post, specifically, I didn't consider that Cat's article could easily be taken as health advice by so many. If I had thought of it, I could have put in an editor's note after any inaccurate information. I could have recommended some reliable sources of birth control information, like Planned Parenthood." It's been several days. She has heard people's concern. To date, no editorial remarks have been added to the piece.
I'm deeply grieved by the episode and by Pratt's response to it. She is a woman I admire and her previous efforts played a part in my adolescence, but while Sassy and Jane were irreverent, this new incarnation of the opinionated and against-the-grain girl as portrayed by this piece is just reckless and shameful.
When you choose page views over self-respect, a fast erosion of credibility is inevitable. I sincerely hope that xojane.com finds a way to move beyond this and grow in a healthy and useful direction. A good start is to add a user bio at the end of the piece explaining the purpose of Cat Marnell's contributions to the site.
Kate Clancy at Scientific American’s Context and Variation zeroes in on why this kind of content is damaging to readers:
Marnell’s piece glamorizes being incurious in a fundamental and problematic way. It makes it cool to be skeeved out by one’s body, to hate it and want to dissociate with it, to avoid glaringly obvious contradictions (such as, I hate birth control pills but love a single pill that contains lots and lots of birth control in it). And the fact that Jane Pratt saw fit to hire a writer with only a background in beauty to write a health and beauty column that even the writer admits is pretty short on health, is a disservice to her readers.
Sci at Scientopia’s Neurotic Physiology has a great post to counteract all the nonsense about the birth control pill listed in Marnell’s post:
Honey, this ISN'T HARD. Haha, yes, I get it. Teehee, science is HARD, you guys! No. This isn't hard. This is your BODY. And it's REALLY IMPORTANT that you know what it's doing, why it's doing that, and what you're putting into it. It's your body, and it's your life, and if you have a right to one thing, it's to know what's going on with your own body. If you are confused about ovulation, menstruation, pregnancy, abortion, or birth control, there are lots of sites where you can go which will explain the relatively simple science behind this. Heck some of them even use nice small words. Far be it from me to tell XO Jane how to handle their hiring, but I do think it's generally wise to have a heath editor who's taken a health course. And who can read. But perhaps I'm too picky.
Michelle Clement at Scientific American’s Crude Matter blog has a great post about female sexuality to help Marnell understand how her body works and how birth control and Plan B tie into the equation:
It makes me sad that (1) a HEALTH (and beauty) columnist refuses to discuss the actual health involved in the topic she’s writing about and (2) this “OH GOD OUR BODIES ARE WEIRD” attitude isn’t at all uncommon among girls of all ages. It sorta makes me wonder how much of her own basic physiology Cat actually understands. I think I can help out with that. This post is a quick and simple Girlybits 101, using very small words and no gross or scary diagrams so that the eternally squeamish and uneducated like Cat Marnell can know a little bit more about their bodies without sending themselves into a hormonal frenzy. I know science is hard, dear, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to learn it, especially if part of your job description is to talk to women about their HEALTH (and beauty).
Rebecca Watson at Skepchick can’t make up her mind whether this is sociopathic idiocy or performance art:
No one is that old, that wealthy, and that ignorant. To be that ignorant, you either have to be very young or from a culture that does not give you access to basic sexual health information. The job description for Health and Beauty Director would require she knows basic things about women’s health. Jane Pratt is an intelligent person who would never hire someone that stupid and dangerous to women.