Covering Roseanne’s tweets: How the media can fuel more animosity

Roseanne Barr’s tweets have continued making headlines for a second day. They also fueled outrage among Twitter and other social media users — people attacked her because of the tweets and then others attacked them, coming to her defense. When you consider what she said, it’s understandable that people would be upset and speak out. But the media’s sensational coverage may do more to fuel the conflict than to help resolve it.

The Knife analyzed four news articles that reported on the tweets and ABC’s subsequent cancellation of Barr’s show “Roseanne.” Before the media got involved, there was drama on all sides: the tweets themselves were demeaning and offensive, and have been considered racist by many. While ABC’s and Disney’s statements about Barr were valid and expressions of personal opinion, they were dramatic, as were comments by the cast and crew of “Roseanne,” who openly disapproved of what Barr said. Then news outlets added their own drama and opinion. Consider these examples:

ABC announced Tuesday that it canceled “Roseanne” after the show’s star, Roseanne Barr, went on a vitriolic and racist Twitter rant. (The Washington Post)
[Barr’s tweet about Valerie Jarrett] led to an almost immediate mea culpa, and a vow to never tweet again. (Fox News)

These are dramatic ways of saying that Barr sent several tweets that were disparaging of Jarrett and others, that she issued an apology afterwards and that she said she was “leaving Twitter.” Presenting the information in a data-based way may not get as many clicks, but it allows readers to assess the story without preconceived notions from news outlets.

The outlets also published their opinions as if they were fact. The New York Times, for instance, wrote that Disney (which owns ABC) had worked to remove racial stereotypes from its productions. The outlet then added:

If Disney did not act forcefully with regard to “Roseanne,” much of that work might have been rendered moot.

Is it plausible Disney was saving its own skin by firing Barr? Sure, but it’s not fact, although the Times presented it that way. Here’s another similar example from CNN:

But even by her low standards, Tuesday's remarks were egregious.

It might seem as if CNN is the authority on Barr’s standards, but that’s pure opinion. Again, Barr’s tweets were dishonorable, regardless of her stated intent of making a joke. In a way, the tweets speak for themselves — does CNN adding its subjective commentary help readers better understand the news? Probably not — it most likely biases them against her.

We also examined a clip from Fox News Channel, in which commentator Jessica Tarlov said that Barr’s tweets were “racist to the nth degree … that’s blatant racism,” and then said, “Roseanne Barr is a racist.” Labeling Barr a “racist” isn’t only disparaging, but irresponsible from a journalistic perspective.

According to the definition, a “racist” is “a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another.” One would need to analyze many of Barr’s comments and actions, not just one tweet, in order to assess whether she might be a racist, and even that might not be enough. To truly know what Barr feels and believes, we would need to hear from Barr herself.

It’s opinions like Tarlov’s that can incite public animosity towards a public figure like Barr, rather than a critical evaluation of what she said and its effects.

Embellishing the news with sensationalism might serve the media’s profit model — after all, reporting on a so-called “scandal” will probably get more clicks than a fact-based report. But sensationalism can also discourage conflict resolution by riling people up on both sides of an issue — just look at Twitter these past two days (or any day, really).

As an informational tool, the media can hold public figures accountable when they act inappropriately, and it can assist in the resolution of conflicts. But to do so, it helps to use objective, data-based reporting.


Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media