Provoking Thought, Not People

“I don’t even know what that means … No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative! It gets the people going!” — Will Ferrell

When I first decided to write this column, I was secretly excited to publish some of my most “controversial” views, hoping to draw eyeballs, and perhaps even gain some notoriety on campus. I hastily drafted an acerbic piece criticizing various political views with which a plurality of Harvard students identify. I proudly sent that, the first draft of my first ever newspaper column, to my father. Twenty minutes later, I received a text from him: “Your job as a columnist is to provoke thought, not people.” He was, of course, correct, and it set me thinking about the whole enterprise.

There is a difference between calling attention to one’s work via its substance and deliberately riling one’s readership. The line between tabloid journalism and what one might consider more “reputable” media is vanishing, as we prioritize sensationalism over discourse. To be sure, newspapers and other media are businesses in a highly competitive (online) landscape, and growing readership or viewership is of great importance. It must be increasingly difficult to market balanced, long-form content when the average human today has an attention span shorter than that of a goldfish. Nonetheless, a media market that sacrifices nuance in intellectual discussion and presents deliberately biased arguments with the hope or intent of going ‘viral’ is a race to the bottom.

This attitude permeates national discourse, as the terribly premature, incomplete and biased reporting on Jussie Smollett and Covington Catholic High School cases recently highlighted. It is also of local importance: In Winthrop House Faculty Dean Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr.’s recent email to Winthrop House residents, he condemned The Harvard Crimson for its one-sided coverage of his decision to represent media mogul Harvey Weinstein. Indeed, there has been almost nothing by way of balanced discussion of this subject at Harvard (including in The Crimson) and some acts by students (ranging from vandalism to aggressive social media posts) have so vitiated the atmosphere that reasoned debate on a topic of importance has become almost impossible.

The Crimson Editorial Board’s public response to Sullivan’s email was, in some ways, an exercise in obfuscation; it provided grandiose platitudes about journalism and made feeble appeals to anti-Trump sentiment, but avoided treatment of Sullivan’s specific concerns almost entirely. This apparent reluctance to engage in real debate over controversial topics epitomizes much of our campus dialogue. From Facebook comment sections to corners of house dining halls, differences of opinion often devolve into indictments of virtue and invocations of identity, ending only when one party decides that they have something better to do.

It is, of course, easy to identify the existence of these problems; finding a solution is far more difficult and I do not pretend to have one. Indeed, a Harvard Business Review study from over two decades ago raises these very issues without a single mention of the internet — one can only imagine how this has amplified since then. More recently, some have argued for an increase in nonprofit media companies, but have failed to determine where funding for such initiatives would come from. Others have pushed for regulation of social media platforms, often a source of "fake" and sensationalist news, but this would only hide such stories temporarily, not eliminate them altogether. In a study analyzing business incentives and possible solutions for media sensationalism, Business School Professor Bharat N. Anand simply concluded that “voluntary efforts at restraint by well-meaning journalists won’t work” due to competitive advertising business models.


Perhaps. But perhaps not. Maybe what the exhausted majority want is nuanced arguments, not rants. Maybe online media culture can mature into a style more valuable than the extremes that garner eyeballs. Maybe generating more heat than light is not the best way to win converts and influence people. We won’t know until we try.

Aditi Sundaram ‘19 is a joint concentrator in Mathematics and Philosophy in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.