On “Harry Potter” and Media Sensationalism

Regardless of your views on the canonical validity of the information provided on Pottermore, all of us can agree that even major media outlets have taken interest in reporting on the latest updates to hit the Harry Potter fan community. These reports, while solidifying the place of the Boy Who Lived as a literary and cultural icon, are often misleading and do fans of the Harry Potter series no favors by providing them with inaccurate information. Here at MuggleNet, the staff members have discussed the issue at length. Since MuggleNet is the No. 1 Harry Potter fansite in the world, with a fanbase that has been with the site for over 15 years, it is important to us that we get things right the first time and apologize when we do make mistakes. For other news media, this doesn’t seem to be the case, especially where Harry Potter is concerned.

From Pottermore’s inception, it has become a prime target for media buzz. In past months, however, the attention focused on Pottermore by major media outlets has grown exponentially. If I were to pinpoint my first notice of the phenomenon, it would be with Rita Skeeter’s coverage of the 2014 World Cup. It isn’t any stretch to say that the media jumps at any hint of Harry and his friends returning to the spotlight, while putting less of a focus on other aspects of the wizarding world.

Personally, I find this to be highly ironic. Rita Skeeter was created by J.K. Rowling in order to make a point of how ridiculous the concept of journalism has become. Comments from Ms. Rowling have been taken out of context for years, and Rita’s Quick-Quotes Quill illustrates the concept aptly. In the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry realizes the extent of Rita’s embellishing and retorts:

Hey, my eyes aren’t ‘glistening with the ghosts of my past’!

Like Rita Skeeter, members of the news media are less concerned with getting the facts than with writing what they think readers want to hear.

When snippets of an interview from Wonderland magazine emerged prior to its publication in February, fans of the Harry Potter series began a serious debate on whether Hermione should have ended up with Harry or Ron. It wasn’t until the full interview was published, however, that J.K. Rowling’s comments could be seen in context:

They’ll probably be fine. [Ron] needs to [work] on his self-esteem issues, and [Hermione] needs to work on being a little less critical.

Then, in early October, Rowling sent out a few cryptic tweets:

While fans (and the MuggleNet staff) scrambled to figure out what it all meant, media outlets, too, weighed in. An article from the Guardian wondered,

Could it be a spell? Or maybe a potion? Or might it just be the big announcement that many Harry Potter fans have been hoping for? Author JK Rowling has tweeted an anagram that has led many to speculate that ‘Harry returns’.

From speculation, more recently, has come assumption. As shown by the coverage of the Pottermore Christmas event, standards of journalistic integrity have been abandoned in favor of wording stories simply for page views and Internet virality. When even Pottermore itself is forced to release a statement due to the amount of misinformation that has been spread, there is clearly an issue at hand. The issue is neither Jo Rowling’s nor Pottermore’s; it rests with journalists who choose to stray from the information they are entrusted with reporting.

To give an example of this, you can read the official announcement from the Pottermore Insider blog here. It reads,

With wonderful writing by J.K. Rowling in Moments from Half-Blood Prince, shiny gold Galleons and even a new potion or two, make sure you don’t miss out – just visit pottermore.com and answer our rhyming riddles to unwrap a #PottermoreChristmas surprise every day.

MuggleNet’s own Eric Scull spoke with Radio New Zealand over the weekend on the topic of Pottermore Christmas, explaining that the upcoming Pottermore information is simply a tie-in to the site’s content on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. (To listen to his interview, you can visit our press page here.)

Meanwhile, articles on the announcement boast some of the following headlines: “JK Rowling to Release 12 New ‘Harry Potter’ Stories,” “J.K. Rowling to release Harry Potter stories each day until Christmas,” and “12 Harry Potter short stories to be released this month,” among others.

In its announcement, Pottermore never mentioned anything about “short stories” being released. Once media outlets latched onto the notion, however, they were quick to give it up. One recent piece from the New York-based Daily News went so far as to call Pottermore’s clarification “Grinch-like” and said,

[It sounds] like a missive from the Ministry of Magic in the bad old days.

This begs the question: At what point did it become appropriate for journalists to exchange professionalism for sulking, instead of retracting previous statements and issuing an apology?

Mistakes are inevitable, and errors do happen. Still, there is a fine line between making an honest mistake and intentionally using articles to mislead readers. An article published last week under the headline “The new Harry Potter film series ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ cancelled” sent a shockwave of anger through the MuggleNet staff. Satirical articles, when handled properly, can be amusing. For avid fans of the Harry Potter series, it is downright cruel. The “Potterhead” community, as we like to call ourselves, is a global one. Satire doesn’t easily translate, and I can only imagine that there were a number of people who were genuinely crushed to read this article.

In today’s world, news can be spread easily and rapidly via the Internet. Social media allows the public to take a story and share it with hundreds, even thousands, of others with a single click. While it is undoubtedly important for news to reach the public in a timely manner, it is also important that this news be accurate. The number of shares, retweets, and clicks on an article shouldn’t be what constitutes its success. What should matter is whether the article is factual, whether it is relevant to its target audience, and whether it has the potential to lead to constructive discussion on the topic, should one be warranted.

Let’s just suffice it to say that there’s a time and a place for Quick-Quotes Quills, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that those are best left to Rita Skeeter.

Mary W.

I am a Slytherin, a lifelong fan of Harry Potter, and a member of MuggleNet staff since 2014. In my Muggle life, I am passionate about human rights, and I love to travel around the world and meet new people.