What Every Foreign Policy Journalist Can Learn From the Miley Cyrus Effect


It seems these days that there is an obsessive focus on enticing readers to click or engage with digital content – even with regard to national security stories. Sites like BuzzFeed have perhaps mastered this art by blending serious foreign policy journalism with lighter coverage like this piece, which explains the Syria situation by using an analogy to the TV show The Hills, or one explaining the drama at the UN General Assembly using personalities from the Real Housewives shows. Andrew Kaczynski, a politics reporter for BuzzFeed, stated that the Syria piece got 800,000 views. Even media outlets like Bloomberg seem to be experimenting with some of these tactics (in a limited way) to capture their readers’ attention in what is a saturated news market characterized by information overload. Otherwise, I’m not sure how to explain Bloomberg's piece about the Fed that asks the reader what it has in common with Kim Kardashian.

At first, some of these articles have given me pause. I found myself questioning whether or not such coverage was productive or even useful. I’ve personally wrestled with this question as I greatly value in-depth and thoughtful commentary on foreign policy topics. At the same time, I’ve also thought about various ways to engage an audience when discussing national security issues, whether I'm trying to inspire more young women to join the field or discussing the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

After thinking about the media coverage over the last few months, I would argue that the only way to keep issues like cybersecurity and the Iranian nuclear program on individuals’ radar screens is to diversify the ways we engage people on these issues; we need to present the material in new and innovative ways.

Why? Because otherwise, people are just going to filter out these topics entirely. Ideally, people would take the time and energy to truly understand the complexities of foreign policy issues, but our current information climate makes that increasingly unlikely.

According to a recent Pew study, more and more Americans are getting news online with 71% of millennials primarily getting their news from the internet. In addition, more people are getting news via social media and on their mobile devices. If we ultimately believe it is important for the public to take an interest in what is going on beyond our borders, and even inspire them to get involved, we need to reach people in different ways.

The diversification of media outlets means that people no longer need to read an entire newspaper each day or tune in for the evening news broadcast. Curated twitter feeds and online publications cater to individual preferences and silo us off into our own personalized reading rooms with our own team of reporters that now includes our friends, family, politicians, and professional journalists reporting to us with various types of content.

At the end of the day, the reality is that more people are talking about Miley Cyrus than the Syria crisis (and many other pop culture events, for that matter…). We might as well attempt to leverage the Miley effect to promote the awareness of foreign policy topics. Ideally, we’d find ways to engage audiences with traditional journalism, and maybe one day we will, but in the meantime we can exploit these viral media trends and use them to expose a broader audience to an array of serious global challenges that they might not otherwise take the time to read about.

I want to be clear that I am not arguing for a general dumbing down of foreign policy coverage. We still need traditional stories, academic articles, and lengthy special features. But we also need new and innovative ways to present foreign policy news (the website Syria Deeply is a perfect example). Foreign policy journalists need to embed their knowledge in a variety of formats in order to draw a larger audience. At the same time, we should make sure we are in fact conveying educational information on global topics, even if it is presented in a way that capitalizes on viral media trends.

And, at the end of the day, I’m not sure I have a big problem with that if it means more people pay attention to foreign policy news and become involved on important issues.