Clickbait headlines negate real reporting. Please stop using them

newsstandBIGOTRY WATCH OP-ED: Journalism during this election has taken some major blows, some of them self-inflicted. Some of the worst performances emerge in the headlines. Many people who write headlines are trained in SEO, in packing the headline with buzzy words that will make readers point the mouse and click. In a world teetering on the brink of critical condition, we need more than clickable. We need facts.

One fact is that many many people will never click. More than half will never read the story. They’ll read the headline, consider the story digested in 14 words or fewer, share it, and move on. The publisher and writer gain a point in the “shared” column, but the reader doesn’t actually read and can come away with a net loss in the information game.

Much has been made of how many Americans fell hard for fake news. But a headline designed to magnetize eyeballs by teasing a story that isn’t there is just as bad. When it comes to social media, for most of the audience, the headlines are the entire story.

Case in point: Jay Rosens’s storify of an exchange he had with a journalist at USA Today (source: Evidence-based vs. accusation-driven reporting (with tweets) · jayrosen_nyu · Storify). Rosen took issue with the headlines on the story about George Soros allegedly funding protests against Donald Trump as though prima facie, Trump’s racially inflammatory rhetoric, blatant sexism, and mockery of disabled people coupled with his obvious complete inability to sit still long enough to govern weren’t sufficient reasons for huge protests.

Rosen noted two headlines in particular:

This article in USA Today came across my social feed a few days ago: Trump supporters target George Soros over protests. It’s about the accusation in some quarters on the right that Soros is behind the protests that sprang up after the election that made Donald Trump president-elect. On Apple News the headline was: George Soros blamed for secretly funding Trump protests.

He goes on to note:

None of the 1,300 words in the article presents any evidence that this charge is true. (Seriously: none.) The entire “plot” of the piece is that accusations have been made, the people accused say the charges are baseless, and USA today found zero evidence to undermine their defense. The accusers include some of the least reliable people on the internet, including the notorious fantasist, Alex Jones of the Infowars site.

Anyone who read past the headline with their analytical mind engaged would reach the same conclusion Rosen did. A closer look at the URL for the USA Today story, and you can see what the original slug was (which usually defaults to the headline that is entered):

george-soros-blamed-unseen-hand-behind-trump-protests

So, in a way, it could have been worse. The headline could have fed into an existing narrative that some “unseen hand,” some well-funded cabal was busily trying to undermine the sovereignty of white nationalism’s newly appointed king.

Thinking up clickbaity headlines may have been fun in some way when fascists weren’t clawing away at the fabric of the republic. It may have looked like a game, monitoring the accumulation of clicks and shares, humblebragging about a million hits, presenting to potential funders the vast reach of your site.

It’s not new, this clickbaiting. Screaming headlines have always been the way to get the reader to buy. But back in the day, the reader had to drop a nickel, then a dime, then a quarter, then a dollar, and today even more to access what was behind that headline.

If the reader simply walked past and imbibed the headline, they couldn’t immediately share their shallow takeaway with hundreds or thousands of other people with a simple, free act of clicking an icon. And if the reader invested in the paper? The reader was going to read it, in part because now it was there, in the hand, and in part because that’s the only way to get return on the investment.

Journalism was worth it.

But today, headlines are free. Much of what people find beyond the headlines remains free. Journalism has been reduced to being literally worthless in terms of fiscal and psychological investment. The Internet wrought it, and everyone involved bought it. And journalism was demeaned and diminished. Michael Wolffe has even argued that the job of journalism is to serve as “stenographers”:

We are not in an oppositional moment right now; that has passed. … Yes, you do want to be stenographers. That’s a very significant piece of journalism. We don’t want to hear [the reporter]. Write it down. You’re there to literally convey what someone in power says, and you bring it to people who want to know. Journalism is now a profession filled with people who are not journalists. They’re all under 25, talking to people under the age of 25. Let me send the message: stenographer is what you’re supposed to be.

 

That is not, for the record, what a journalist is supposed to be. We are emphatically in an oppositional moment, and a journalist’s job is to use tools and access others lack to dig for truths about those in power and reveal them.

The bedrock is still there. It’s time for journalists to drill posts into it that will not loosen and be unmoored with the buffeting to come. Some of this work will be difficult and a tough sell to a dopamine-addled potential readership caught in the slipstream of headlines flowing by on their feeds.

Journalism can’t do it alone. People who care about the cleansing power of light on lies and deceit need to step up. Those 40% or whatever it is of people who do read past the headlines need to remind themselves that indeed, while freedom may in some senses be free, it takes work to bring people the truth, and work costs money. Pay for the journalism you consume, pay the people who do the footwork, find the facts, tell the stories. They’re doing their jobs.

And journalism can, in fact, do this one weird trick to start returning reader expectations to within shouting distance of what articles themselves report: Capture the real story in the headline, not the one that baits but the one that broadcasts truth. Sure, go for pithy and clicky, but don’t sacrifice facts on the alter of Internet virality. Six out of ten of your readers may not get past it. But they’ll still gain accurate information in spite of themselves–and share it with others.

Image via Wikimedia Commons; credit John Henderson

 

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