In February 2012, Lisa Khoury met the Internet. Foregoing a handshake, the meeting began with the digital equivalent of a slap across the face.
As a sophomore at the University of Buffalo and at the start of only her second semester practicing journalism, Khoury wrote a column for The Spectrum student newspaper expressing her distaste for tattoos.
Her sentiments went dizzyingly, nastily viral. In return for immense page views, Khoury suffered withering public and private attacks from strangers worldwide. They belittled every bit of her — “personality, looks, upbringing, position on gender roles and morals.”
The moral of the story, as Spectrum editor-in-chief Matthew Parrino wrote at the time: “Beware of what you write. It can destroy you.”
In their first interviews since the viral dust has settled, Khoury and Parrino discussed the run-up, blow-up, aftermath and upshot of what American Journalism Review dubbed an “Internet Drubbing.”
Their actions at the time, and their more recent reflections, form a journalistic playbook of sorts for how to handle what Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman and others call viral hate.
Bumper Sticker on a Ferrari
The crisis began with a bumper sticker on a Ferrari.
Inspired by a spirited debate during a Spectrum editorial meeting, Khoury agreed to produce one part of a point-counterpoint for the paper on the relative merits of body ink in modern times.
The main point of Khoury’s column: Women are beautiful without permanent body markings. She compared a tattoo on a woman to a “bumper sticker on a Ferrari,” a line she once heard on TV that scored big laughs when she repeated it in the newsroom.
“An elegant woman does not vandalize the temple she has been blessed with as her body,” she wrote. “She appreciates it. She flaunts it. She’s not happy with it? She goes to the gym. She dresses it up in lavish, fun, trendy clothes, enjoying trips to the mall with her girlfriends … She enjoys the finer things in life, all with the body she was blessed with. But marking it up with ink. That’s just not necessary.”
In response, readers worldwide pounced, a majority condemning Khoury and her perspectives. Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist Eric Zorn labeled the pile-on nothing less than a veritable “Ink Stink.” The “tattoo community” reacted most harshly — cutting into Khoury with invectives that left her “flamed, blasted and just about driven out of school on a rail.”
The headline of a post from one angry tattooed blogger: “Hey Lisa Khoury, you’re what’s wrong with this world.”
As Khoury wrote in response soon after her column appeared online, “I woke up today and had 938 hate mails, 646 nasty Facebook comments, and dozens of mean-spirited tweets. I’m a 19-year-old college sophomore, I help run my family’s restaurant, I’m a writer and editor at my school’s newspaper, and a woman from Australia says I’m ‘sexist.’ A professor from the University of Illinois wonders about my mental stability. A man double my age is calling me ‘ugly.’ In the past 48 hours, authors, war veterans, mothers of small children have told me I’m ignorant, worthless, brainwashed, classless, disgusting, hypocritical, and judgmental.”
She called the experience, simply, “The Day I Met the Internet.”
In their recounting of that meeting roughly a year later, Khoury and Parrino said they learned six main lessons from the viral hate they faced and the steps they took to cope with and counter it.
1. Context is key
In print, Khoury’s anti-tattoo column ran directly alongside a pro-tattoo piece by another Spectrum staffer –- part of the paper’s occasional point-counterpoint series. By contrast, online, at first, her article appeared on its own.
Parrino said it was a significant divergence. He quickly noticed that while online anger at Khoury was boiling over, no regular Spectrum readers or members of the UB community who saw the print version submitted a complaint.
What was the difference between the two camps? Online, readers saw only one side of the argument.
“I think the biggest mistake I made was putting it online without any type of context, leaving somebody to think this was just something someone wrote independently of anything else,” Parrino said. “When you do a point-counterpoint piece, you tend to write more aggressively, because you’re trying to win an argument.”
Parrino realized that while you may not always be able to digitally mimic a print package, it is essential to still provide the bigger picture or missing links to ensure the same context is present. And he also recognized the presence of this context must be prominent and immediate.
He learned the latter lesson through two initial failures. First, trying to halt the hate parade, he posted a brief explainer beneath Khoury’s write-up, in the comments section. But it was understandably overlooked and then quickly buried beneath hundreds of angry reader comments.
Separately, five days after the online outrage began, editors inserted a link atop the article directing readers to also check out the counterpoint. It was too little, too late. By then, the stench of “ink stink” was overpowering.
2. Don’t drown in the hate
After her column went viral, Khoury did not immediately grasp the scope or ferocity of the attacks directed at her -– but she did try to take them all in. She regrets that now.
Initially, Khoury said she read almost every email and comment, including the most venomous replies. The read-through had some benefits. It enabled her to grasp the gist of critics’ views and spot some positive and more constructive feedback.
But it also led, predictably, to temporary sadness and a fractured soul. As she wrote at the time, “All this hate has shaken me.”
She is not alone. Khoury recalled a campus visit by New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks. “He told us he never reads his hate mail because he gets so upset,” she said. “He said it’s unbearable. So even people at The New York Times get emotionally affected. We’re human. It’s normal. But you can’t do that to yourself. You can’t read all of them. Do not get hung up on the hate mail.”
3. Respond — don’t retaliate
Throughout the viral ordeal, Khoury purposefully avoided sending ornery emails to her attackers. She also stopped her family from sending similarly mean messages on her behalf –- a difficult undertaking at the height of the madness.
She does not believe in an eye for an eye. She also did not want to give her haters the satisfaction of seeing her unraveled. But mostly, she recognized the ultimate worthlessness of individual retorts to a digital mob.
“These people’s minds were already made up,” Khoury said. “I’m not going to alter their views by emailing them back. Some of their emails were also just disgusting. If someone could email someone saying these things, there’s nothing I could say in return. If anything, it would just fuel the fire more.”
Instead, she focused all her energy on a single, fully formed follow-up in the Spectrum.
“I wanted people to see I am a professional,” she said, explaining her thinking at the time. “I’m a serious student journalist. And I’m going to write one piece that blows everyone away.”
Khoury’s public response, produced quickly, also ensured her perspectives were inserted into the larger narrative of the controversy while it was still at its height. And it presented her with a measure of control. While she could never quell the masses, one by one, she could write from the heart -– and then gracefully exit the stage.
In respect to the latter, the response was as much for her as it was for readers.
“After that night, when it was published at two in the morning, I laid down in my bed and I could finally sleep,” she said. “I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, because for the past three or four nights I was just crying and not sleeping. I felt like it was over. Anything after that, anything anyone said about me or to me, I didn’t care. It didn’t hurt me. I accepted it.”
4. Chart a positive course
That acceptance soon led to excitement. Pushing aside the hate, Khoury saw massive web traffic, passionate responses, and a fascinating debate –- all of which she triggered.
“When my tattoo column went viral, I felt this crazy amount of power,” she said. “I think any journalist wants this to happen to them to a certain extent. You want to get your name, your voice, out there … I had a revelation: What if I could start a dialogue and evoke emotion out of that many people, but for a positive cause?”
More than a year later, she transformed her revelation into action. This past March, the Spectrum published “The Heights of Fear,” a special investigation by Khoury exploring the University of Buffalo’s lack of supervision for students living off-campus. One larger question her buzzworthy report broached: Do schools have a moral or legal liability to protect students living in areas close to campus known for being especially unsafe?
“’The Heights of Fear’ may have not changed the world,” said Khoury, who was recently named managing editor of the Spectrum. “But so many people around Western New York now know how many students are scared or suffering in their own homes.”
She said others have told her it is the piece that will land her jobs and be a talking point for years to come in interviews — a “clip for life.”
While the report may never eclipse her “bumper sticker” on Google, it was inspired by it.
As Khoury confirmed, “My tattoo column lit this fire in me that I can’t put out. I want my job to be parallel with being a good person, and I can’t imagine practicing a more fulfilling and necessary job than journalism.”
5. Don’t fully retreat
A review of the public reactions to Khoury’s column –- the comments, blog posts, and quotes in related news stories –- shows some of the fiercest feedback was valid. Other replies bordered on insensitive. And some comebacks were simply out of line.
As Khoury shared about the latter, “My inbox was flooded with dozens of men and women who called me a dumb bitch, and one man only sent me two words: ‘stupid cow.’ These people I have never met attacked my family and how I was raised. They accused me of trying to play God, and one woman even told me I reminded her of Hitler during the Holocaust.”
In separate write-ups, Khoury, Parrino, and Managing Editor Edward Benoit decided to call out these more offensive and off-kilter responses.
Parrino and Khoury said they understood it would have been easier to simply say “I’m sorry” and pull back. But they saw the more bizarre and intense animosity as an opening to larger conversations about tolerance and the limits of Internet expression. To them, the conversations were extensions of their larger journalistic mission with the Spectrum.
As Parrino’s Twitter profile currently reads, “Being a part of the conversation is what it’s all about. Take advantage of it.”
“I’m not going to lie,” said Khoury. “I contemplated, at first, writing ‘I’m so sorry’ and being all sappy. But nowadays, if you don’t have the accepted opinion in society, you’re the close-minded one. That’s not fair. I wanted justice to be served. Why is it unacceptable for someone to think a certain way? I mean, we’re supposed to be tolerant of all different views, right? That’s the thing these days -– tolerance, open-mindedness. And I think there’s a two-way street to that. So I said that.”
6. Keep the billions at the back of your mind
From “The Heights of Fear” to the lows of “Ink Stink,” one last resonating lesson for Khoury: Recognize how fast and wide everything you produce online can spread -– and the untargeted audiences it can tap.
“I don’t know if college commentaries have a place in the outside Internet world,” said Parrino, who currently serves as sports editor of Tonawanda News in upstate New York. “I love college journalism. It was the best couple years of my life. You’re never able to be more free or learn as much. It’s OK to push the envelope in that ultimate goal of learning, but there’s a different conversation going on in college than outside the walls. When you take that conversation off campus and put it out there for the whole world to see, you’re going to run into a lot of situations where people misinterpret and take offense.”
An anonymous commenter beneath Khoury’s response column put it most candidly, if insultingly, “Wake up, idiot -– its the 21st century! Big brother is watching! Your stupid, uninformed, lame article isn’t just for the consumption of your fellow college students anymore –- it’s being consumed by BILLIONS OF PEOPLE!!!!!”
Or as Khoury reflected more gently about the experience, “We need to all be more prepared with how we put journalism out there. We have a larger audience now –- whether we like it or not.”
Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His textbook Journalism of Ideas: Brainstorming, Developing, and Selling Stories in the Digital Age was published in April by Routledge.