Ravi Somaiya has a piece in the New York Times musing about what all the Cecil the lion coverage says about How We Internet Today:
The phrase "Cecil the lion" now returns about 3.2 million Google News results. Among those are celebrity takes ("Jean-Claude Van Damme Responds to Cecil the Lion Outrage"), emotional takes ("Like All Lions, Cecil Had a Huge Capacity to Love") and contrarian takes ("Eating Chicken Is Morally Worse Than Killing Cecil the Lion"). There were local takes, millennial takes, arguments that other global concerns were more pressing, roundups of previous stories and condemnations of the amount of coverage. (Not to mention articles like this one.)
As it happens, "Eating chicken is morally worse than killing Cecil the lion" is a story from the excellent website Vox.com. And I think it gets at something fundamental here: It's not the importance of your news peg; it's how you use it that matters.
Cecil's death was not, in the scheme of things, a particularly important news story. But it generated an intense, unusual interest in stories about how human beings treat animals that could be used to focus attention on important stories that weren't news that day — stories about animal cruelty, and wildlife conservation, and the ethics of mob justice. These topics are, in my view, a whole lot more important than much of what counts as news on a given day.
And so, as Somaiya's roundup suggests, you can cover Cecil the lion by aggregating Jean-Claude Van Damme's thoughts. Or you can use Cecil the lion to talk about the ongoing moral horror of how chickens are tortured from birth until they are killed to serve as cheap food.
By the same token, important news stories can be covered in trivial ways. Donald Trump is currently leading the polls to be the Republican Party's candidate for president of the United States. Some coverage of his campaign focuses on his policies (such as they exist, anyway), and on the drivers of his appeal, and on what his success reveals about the nature of the electorate. But an awful lot of the coverage treats the whole thing as a hilarious joke.
And that's not just a Trump problem, of course. Much of what counts as campaign reporting is trivial. A contest over the future of the country often resolves down to round-the-clock coverage of meaningless gaffes.
Which is all to say that the challenge for publishers is whether we use news stories to illuminate what's important or we use them to obscure what's important. And that challenge is no easier — indeed, in some ways, it's harder — when the news peg is obviously important than when it's arguably trivial.
After all, when the news peg is trivial — as with Cecil the lion — then it's obvious if we're lowering our standards and chasing traffic by writing fluff even as we ignore more important issues. But when the news peg is more consequential — as it is with presidential elections — it makes it easier to get away with writing something trivial.
Somaiya's larger thesis is that the chase for online traffic is forcing publishers to cover more trivial, clicky stories. I'm mildly skeptical of that — I remember a whole lot of Princess Diana coverage growing up. But I do think the internet has created more flexibility in terms of what counts as a story, and that's given publishers the freedom to cover appealing topics in more substantive ways, and to cover important topics in more appealing ways. The question is whether we use that freedom well, or not.
Update: To be clear about one thing in this post, I think it's fine for publishers to do stories that are fun, or silly, or just interesting. We sometimes do them at Vox! My point here is that the nature of the news doesn't drive the seriousness of the story. You can do light stories about hard news and heavy stories about light topics.