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Pop Culture is News, Not Clickbait, University Professor Says in New Book

From #MeToo to Marvel to JK Rowling, Communications Professor Joel Penney looks at how celebrities and entertainment news play a major role in the public’s understanding of social and political issues

Posted in: Communication and Media, Faculty Voices

Joel Penney, associate professor in the School of Communication and Media.

Swipe down the average social media user’s news feed and posts about the latest celebrity backlash, controversial Disney casting decision or viral hashtag will inevitably appear.

But contrary to popular opinion, these stories aren’t mindless, clickbait content – they are meaningful social and political commentary and should be treated as such, a Montclair State University professor says in his new book.

In Pop Culture, Politics, and the News, Communications Associate Professor Joel Penney explores entertainment journalism and the role it plays in social and political issues. This intersection is an area of communication that Penney says is under-researched and deserves a closer look, especially given the current cultural climate.

Through firsthand accounts and interviews with entertainment news journalists and cultural critics, the book analyzes how these reporters have taken on the role of political commentators, particularly around coverage of issues including the #MeToo movement and the racial reckoning in Hollywood. Penney also explores how pop culture news opens the door for audiences who may otherwise not seek out traditional political news coverage.

Here are a few of the highlights from Pop Culture, Politics, and the News and Penney’s thoughts…

…On why entertainment journalists need better resources

Pop Culture, Politics, and the News makes a plea to the journalism industry, calling for media companies and editors to take pop culture and entertainment journalism more seriously and invest more resources in the beat. Through interviews, the book communicates an awareness within the industry that entertainment journalism is not living up to its potential.

“While this news is seen as quite profitable, it’s also seen as a low-reputation field, not as valued,” Penney says. “We really do need cultural and entertainment journalists to help us understand the ways in which pop culture and politics are colliding. The problem is the economics of this system is set up so that this type of news is a cheap way to get attention.”

Major publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post have the resources to take on this type of storytelling, Penney says, but “not every news company has the ability to do high-quality reporting, to hire full-time critics and not rely on fast turnaround freelance work used to fill a news hole. It’s more about the haves and have-nots.”

…On how social media impacts entertainment news

The idea for Pop Culture, Politics, and the News emerged from Penney’s previous research into social media and political expression. He noticed that the sharing of stories focused on a celebrity or pop culture franchise like Marvel or Star Wars was a common way in which people were getting involved in political discussions in the online space.

Conservative audiences in particular, Penney observed in his research, take part in “oppositional engagement” with entertainment news: Users who disagree with a news article will share it to their feeds and include a comment that expresses their criticism of the journalist or story angle. The finding “shows how much news content plays a big role in how people engage with politics on social media.”

It also shows how passionate social media users are about pop culture.

“Some of the most intense vitriol is aimed at [journalists] talking about pop culture,” Penney says. Fans may feel their identity is being attacked because a franchise they love is being criticized, which turns into intense emotions targeted at journalists.

In extreme cases, some of the journalists Penney interviews in the book said they held back on running a story or investigating a topic for fear of harassment. “It’s obviously a big problem if a fan community is bullying a journalist into silence.”

These instances underscore the core message of Penney’s book, that pop culture news is “touching the third rail of politics and we need to be looking at this entertainment world more seriously.”

…On conservative media using entertainment news as a political strategy

Penney’s research in Pop Culture, Politics, and the News also discusses the “culture war coverage” by right-wing media used as a strategy to engage conservative audiences. Conservative journalists interviewed for the book were candid on the subject, Penney says, sharing how the conservative news landscape has changed.

“Politics is downstream from culture,” an idea made popular by conservative journalist and Breitbart News founder Andrew Breitbart and discussed in the book, takes the position that conservatives should focus on cultural issues and pop culture as a way to advance long-term political goals.

“It’s become the mantra in these circles of news commentators and pundits who are looking at pop culture as a way to make larger political arguments and get their audience angry and worked up,” Penney says, leading to the use of terms like “woke Hollywood” as a derogatory term.

…On how future journalists can improve entertainment and pop culture reporting

Penney says the entertainment journalists of tomorrow should strive to produce quality coverage that will stand apart from the countless uninformed hot takes that exist online.

One way to do this would be for more journalists to reference scholarly research in their pop culture coverage, acting as a link between the academic world and their audiences in the same way a medical journalist would be the conduit between medical literature and the general public.

Society’s general orientation toward entertainment – that everybody is knowledgeable about topics like television, movies and video games because content is so accessible – is such that the role of expertise has become murky, Penney says.

“It obscures the role of expertise, for instance, of professional critics and also people who do scholarly research on these topics. Academic fields have been studying this stuff for a long time – their role in society, their impact on sociopolitical issues.” By acknowledging this work, Penney says, journalists can produce better quality coverage that will serve the public in a more meaningful way.

For more information about the School of Communication and Media, visit To set up an interview with Joel Penney, please contact the Media Relations team.