Gotcha Journalism Turns to Target Anyone on the Street

A new form of gotcha journalism targets everyday people rather than high-profile politicians with questions designed to elicit a newsworthy response. While most agree this approach erodes ethical journalism, media users love to hate it.

The latest incident of viral gotcha journalism involves Kaitlin Bennet, an amateur far-right reporter, facing a large crowd of opposing students at Ohio University. According to CNN, Bennet came to the campus unannounced to film a video and left within two hours.

Footage shows Bennet walking through hundreds of students who yelled at her, threw small objects at her and essentially chased her off of campus. Those unaware of Bennet’s claim to fame might balk at the extreme reactions a random journalist warranted simply by showing up at a university. 

However, Bennet is a prime example of the new era of gotcha journalism, one that attempts to expose the average citizen.

Gotcha journalism today is tied up with Twitter, combining the idea of exposing scandalous information with cancel culture. Cancel culture, or publicly calling out someone for their actions online, has led to “canceled” people losing their jobs and facing animated feedback from thousands of strangers online. 

A new way to cancel people is to get them to say something worth exposing on camera, or gotcha journalism in its most recent form. 

This is what Bennet does. She asks liberal students controversial questions intended to evoke a reaction and then posts whatever results she gets to feed her conservative audience the footage they need to cancel someone in their communities. 

Bennet’s method and choice of interviewee is not uncommon. There is a trend in conservative media of “triggering liberals,” which is considered a sign of weakness on the part of their political foes. Donald Trump Jr., for example, urged his fans to send in videos of them triggering liberals at Thanksgiving in the hopes of winning a copy of his book, titled “Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us.” 

I myself experienced this pedestrian gotcha journalism when I counter-protested the March for Life on January 24th. There were countless journalists at the counter-protest, some from conservative media outlets, and the competition for a controversial interview was fierce. 

A fellow counter-protester, Hailee Bilimoria, was pursued by a journalist from CBC Radio-Canada for their piece on the March for Life. Bilimoria said the reporter was “asking questions that were like ‘trap questions,’ such as ‘why do you support murder’? And ‘you’re okay with murdering people?’”

 “When I refused to answer and tried blocking myself from the camera, he physically moved my sign and tried grabbing my arm so I’d come back to answer,” she said. Another fellow counter-protester ushered Bilimoria into their ranks so she was safe from the reporter’s pursuit.

One anti-choice protester around my age approached me, and asked me why I was “pro-abortion.” I thanked her for approaching and told her I also wanted to discuss her views. 

Mid-sentence, I noticed her friend holding a phone camera a few feet away from my face.

I told her I did not feel comfortable talking on camera, out of concern for how my words might be used, but that I would be happy to discuss the issue off camera. 

She and the cameraman left.

It was clear to me at that moment what this new form of gotcha journalism seeks – not a story or not a righteous exposition of truth, but that viral moment.

Going viral today can make someone’s career in a day. After originally going viral, Bennet got a job offer, appeared on a talk show, was featured in a painting Jim Carrey created and is now covered by most major news outlets, on both sides of the aisle. That viral moment is what created the market for gotcha journalism, giving reporters an incentive to hunt down a clip that will draw immense online attention.

Despite the fact that gotcha journalism is criticized in the news and notorious online, it is widely consumed. When Bennet stepped foot on that campus, people who disagreed with her wholeheartedly were eagerly waiting to give her their two cents. People stop scrolling to watch people harass others, because they love to hate it.

It is difficult to find a concrete definition of gotcha journalism but is obviously negatively connoted when discussed as a journalistic practice. 

Colby Itkowitz of the Washington Post defined the gotcha question as “code for asking something that, no matter what the answer, is almost always going to produce a story.”

NPR’s Kylie Moher touched on the history of this term. In the ‘80s/’90s, “gotcha journalism” became a popular term as motives shifted in journalism. The New York Times’ Matt Bai succinctly described this shift in political journalism specifically as one “from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods.”

Today, the targets of gotcha journalism are selected off the street.

I recognize that I am contributing to the amount of media in the world that spreads Bennet’s name. However, she is an excellent case study to use an example when discussing how to end this attention-dependent anti-journalism. 

Once gotcha journalists like Bennet are deprived of their viral moment, they essentially cease to exist. It is their controversy and buzz-worthiness that makes them relevant and propels their behavior, and without people engaging with their content, their moment dies. 

Like many media habits, indulging in gotcha journalism is hard to break. Yet, in order to prevent the preying of predatory journalism on everyday people who are not trained to speak with the media, it must be done.

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