OPINION: Local journalism contributes to “Purge” hysteria

On Aug. 13, teenagers across Louisville got wind of a supposed “Purge” that would be happening in the city on Friday, Aug. 15.  Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram became instant breeding grounds for the rumor, causing a full-out panic in the greater Louisville area. I had friends from Lexington and Northern Kentucky texting me to “stay safe” during the Purge. My parents urged me to stay indoors. Even a few events were cancelled. But during all this hysteria, where were the local news websites? Did they attempt to quell the rumors and investigate further, or did they practice sensationalist reporting and only add to the “Purge” mania? Unfortunately, it was mainly the latter.

Local news websites must underestimate the importance of their job. In a situation like this, the only people reporting on it will be the local news outlets. We don’t have CNN to fly in and let us know what’s going on. It’s up to the Louisville news sites to inform the public, and it’s such an important job to have. Unfortunately, most of the news websites completely dropped the ball this time. WHAS posted an article yesterday that was basically just a compilation of quotes from various Louisvillians talking about whether or not they were taking the purge seriously. The Courier-Journal also published an article about the purge that failed to fully inform readers. It wasn’t just one local news website; it was most of them.

Now, that’s not to say that a news site guilty of sensationalist reporting is a bad news outlet site. Sensationalism, defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “the use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement”, is an easy thing to fall back on. Sensationalist journalism can be very commercially successful. Just look at the National Enquirer—if that even counts as journalism. However, it’s not the best approach for news stories, especially news stories that, if handled the wrong way, could cause widespread panic. If the local news reporters had perhaps dug a little deeper, they may have found quite easily that the teen responsible for the “Purge” panic never intended for it to be taken seriously.

It’s not just sensationalism that hurt local coverage of this story but also lack of substance. The story I linked to in the second paragraph was definitely guilty of this. Most of the “Purge” coverage I read followed the same basic format: a few quotes from concerned citizens, maybe one quote from the LMPD, a description of the plot of “The Purge,” and the time frame in which the Louisville Purge would be happening. I understand that sometimes it can be hard to get quotes from authority, especially if they have their own things to worry about (i.e. a possible Purge), but publishing quotes from people who are just as confused as everyone else in the general public is not going to help anyone, and it’s definitely not reassuring.

All this aside, I have a tremendous amount of respect for local news reporters, and I do believe they often work hard to make sure that Louisville stays informed. However, the coverage of this story was definitely not the best Louisville news could do. This was a story in which active reporting was the difference between clarity and confusion. If rumor-based stories aren’t thoroughly covered, they will remain rumor-based stories forever because no one ever got the facts. It’s obviously not an easy thing to debunk every rumor in a story as undeveloped as the Louisville Purge story, but in local journalism, it can make all the difference.

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Alex Coburn was the Managing Editor of RedEye for the 2015-2016 school year and Co-Creator of Feminism 101. Alex is an aspiring director and attended Governor’s School for the Arts for New Media in 2014, and the short movie she directed there was featured in the Danville Film Festival. Outside of RedEye, Alex independently produces short films. She is also an avid Wes Anderson fan.