In 2016, after Amber Heard filed for a restraining order against her ex-husband Johnny Depp alleging a history of verbal and physical abuse, the world turned on Depp: reporters began to paint Depp as a quiet yet serial abuser, continually bashing the actor’s continued presence in Hollywood and asking “What will it take for Hollywood to drop famous, dangerous men?”, fans responded to casting announcements involving Depp with anger and vitriol, and Disney dropped him from his iconic role as Captain Jack Sparrow in their Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Following the resurfacing of tweets joking about pedophilia and molestation made by director James Gunn, context regarding Gunn’s jokes, his apologies for his past behavior, and the support of his Guardians of the Galaxy cast members were ignored as he was let go by Disney from his role as director for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, mere hours after attention had been drawn to his tweets, and after photos of Gunn at a ‘To Catch a Predator’ themed party were discovered, Gunn was labeled by the internet as typical Hollywood pedophile.
When reports broke that actor Jussie Smollett had been the victim of a viscous assault due to the color of his skin and his sexual orientation, reporters, fans, and influential politicians immediately began to describe the event as an affirmative indication that bigotry was alive, well, and emboldened in America, with the blame placed primarily on the rhetoric and existence of President Trump and his supporters whilst also attacking anyone who questioned the story or reported the attacks as anything but confirmed.
Though the people, the subjects, and the stories may differ between each event, they share a very troubling aspect: Despite initial reports, these narratives quickly fell apart. Depp, though depicted as a serial abuser, now appears to be the true victim of alleged abuse at the hands of Heard. Gunn was nothing close to a pedophile, and Disney would offer him his role back as director for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Smollett’s story would take a stunning turn as police claim the incident was a hoax and the actor was arrested for allegedly faking the entire incident and now faces felony charges.
These events, although they share almost no characteristics in common, are all representative of a growing trend in modern reporting and discourse. Rather than waiting for facts or verifying information, bias-informed-opinions are run as headlines and narratives are formed according to how well a given event aligns with one’s beliefs. This is nothing new, as human beings are understandably reactionary when forming opinions or attempting to prove a point to an opponent, but the speed of information dissemination supplied by social media has led to these reactions having real world consequences. Unfortunately, due to growing political and social divisions, snap narratives are being spread as factual truth with an increasing frequency.
One of the most beloved scenes in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming depicts a montage of Spider-Man living up to his ‘friendly neighborhood’ moniker by patrolling the streets and offering his assistance in any way he can, whether stopping a bike thief, giving an old woman directions, or just having a friendly conversation with a Hot Dog stand worker. However, at one point, Spider-Man attempts to stop a man from breaking into a car, webbing his hand to the door and smashing the thief’s face into the hood of the car:
As Spider-Man tells the thief ‘Stealing cars is bad’, the thief angrily replies to the interloper by stating that “It’s my car, dumbass!”
This scene is a perfect metaphor for the current cycle of narrative reporting. Any member of the public, from reporters, to activists, to politicians, are quick to make a judgement based on their initial perception of a given event (to many, Depp looked to be a violent monster and Smollett seemed a genuine victim) and then act upon that judgement by reporting a story from an ‘angle’ rather than neutral perspective. Yet the one making the judgement, much like Spider-Man, ends up looking foolish when it’s revealed that there was more to a situation than what they initially believed and acted upon. In Homecoming, the quick judgments and reactions resulted in a painful face slam and an hour stuck to the car for the ‘thief’, but in the real world, these actions can result in people’s livelihoods and reputations being permanently destroyed, whether intentionally or as a byproduct of a negative narrative.
Should negative reports, such as accusations of sexual misconduct leveled against voice actor Vic Mignogna or accusations of rape directed towards comedian Aziz Ansari, thus be ignored and unreported? Absolutely not, as these stories and rumors concern activity which puts others in danger and may lead to further discovery of corroborating or exonerating reports and evidence, and victims should always be afforded the opportunity to tell their stories.
However, in the volatile world of social media, it is growing more important for reporters to provide proper context for a developing situation, using factual qualifiers such as ‘allegedly’, ‘reportedly’, and ‘accused of’, instead of impulsively running to use an event as ‘ammunition’ in ideological spats. In other words, instead of immediately slamming the face of an accused into the hood of a car, it might be helpful to web their hands and let the authorities deal with the potential criminal. As exciting and heroic as Spider-Man’s actions seem in a fictional context, those same actions lack the nuance of a real world legal system and relies on snap judgements instead of proper investigation.
This is not to say that people should stop holding opinions or judgments, as these are personal thoughts informed by a person’s personal experiences and beliefs, but it may be time for people who hold some level of authority regarding news matters, such as reporters or politicians, to once again begin exercising caution and ensure that any direct claim can be backed up by evidence. The detail of a ‘red hat’ and cries of ‘MAGA’ from Smollett’s attacker so perfectly satisfied the bloodlust for President Trump that many Americans hold that most people should have been skeptical, keeping in mind the age-old adage, “it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.”
Everyone could benefit from a healthy dose of skepticism, especially when many of these stories so loudly represent a specific viewpoint or confirmation of a personal fear.