Headlines used to be an efficient tool to inform readers of an article’s most intriguing focus. Today, low-ball attempts to trick readers into viewing a piece of ad-filled, frivolous content with deliberately misleading headlines has become the scourge of the internet. Despite reader frustration, publishers won’t stop—but why?
Almost every mainstream media outlet has gone digital, each competing against the other in the biggest whirlpool of content ever. And with the normalization of a 24-hour news cycle, individual articles are receiving less readership than ever before. Publishers are growing desperate, leading to measures that are eroding readership trust and compromising journalistic integrity. A journalist’s obligation to convey stories with truthfulness, accuracy, fairness, and with public accountability seems to have become buried or twisted by corporate business models and concern for the bottom line.
Media outlets undoubtedly earn a huge chunk of revenue from online advertisements. According to a report by PageFair in partnership with Adobe, publishers lost around $22 billion in potential revenue during 2015 due to the use of adblocking software. Considering that only about 5% of internet users in the world are also ad-block users, we can imagine how much revenue come from these ads.
Too Much But Not Enough
One of the most important aspects of journalism is skepticism: to be able to question and find perspectives outside the status quo. But when publishers and broadcasters compete on the digital battlefield, it seems being the critical voice is simply not sustainable.
When the focus is on how many clicks a piece of content should get, Ken Smith, chairman of the Welsh National Union of Journalists, told BBC that “instant gratification journalism” will overtake content that requires more in-depth research, resulting in more trivial and shallow stories.
This is concerning for two main reasons. Without a properly informed public, democracy cannot function – a point proven during the major political events that occurred in 2016. In fact, providing access to well-presented news and opinion grants the public media literacy, a crucial skill that will allow people to assess and form their own judgements on a piece of news they read.
Journalists in Emotional Battlefield
As publications and broadcasters continue to churn out clickbait, journalists themselves also suffer under the clickbait machine. Full-time, permanent journalist positions are not as secure as they once were, with outlets instead using bloggers, freelancers, and citizen journalists to churn out content. Not only that, the types of content journalists are asked to create have also drastically changed. It’s all about emotion.
In a paper called “Breaking the News: First Impressions Matter On Online News,” researchers analyzed the emotional polarity of 69,907 headlines from four media corporations in 2014 and found that the more extreme the emotional score, the more popular the headline. More importantly, if a headline was written to convey a more extreme emotion, it also received more clicks, meaning that it’s not only the positive or negative news itself that is popular, but the way a headline is worded that has a significant effect. Other studies have shown that watching or simply being exposed to news or programs about natural disasters and human violence increases both emotional arousal and the chances of viewers coming back for more. These findings may explain the abundant amount, and relative popularity, of news regarding weather (natural disasters), health (diseases), and crime, and the tendency to sensationalize these headlines.
Considering that information for weather, traffic, health, and crime are cheap and easy to find, journalistic inquiry and investigative journalism have basically gone out the window. News reporting is no longer about good investigation and well-presented information but more about who can write the catchiest headline and curate the trendiest stories to encourage the highest number of clicks. Frustrated and neglected, some of the few “real” journalists left are either trapped or have resigned, saying that it has become too hard to do what they’ve been trained to do.
The Impact of Irresponsibility
According to Noam Chomsky in his interview with Byline.com, when mainstream media is only focused on providing a market for advertisers, the “concept of free media” becomes distorted.
Sensationalized and disguised fluff pieces that don’t provide sufficient contextual background or enough investigative support leads to content that overly simplifies complex issues and ignores long-term implications. How is the reader expected to form an objective, informed opinion?
On October 26, 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report that finds certain processed meats increased a person’s risk of developing stomach cancer. Mainstream media sources immediately released coverage of this report with headlines suggesting that processed meat is comparable to other carcinogens like smoking – an idea that is inaccurate and exaggerated, but guaranteed clickbait. While vegan advocates around the world rejoiced as meat-lovers despaired, the International Agency for Research on Cancer clarified that just because processed meat was a group 1 carcinogen (the same group as tobacco), it “does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous.”
Sensationalism and clickbait-y news becomes even more dangerous when taken to a political level. The media has always played an integral role in politics, but when the media becomes more focused on popularity contests than responsibly informing the public, political news becomes little more than a tabloid magazine that fails to discuss crucial, complex points. The media’s gleefully frivolous coverage of the 2016 presidential election is a prime example.
When the validity of a president’s birth certificate and the intricacies of a candidate’s hair is just as widely discussed, if not more so, than their stances on climate change, immigration, and other fundamental policies, it’s safe to say that there is something very, very wrong in the world of journalism today.