Clickbait: Better to bite the head that ledes you

by Daniel Blomquist / Assistant Opinion Editor • November 20, 2014

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Sensationalistic and dramatic headlines shroud often decent reporting and blur the line between hard news and puff pieces.
Sensationalistic and dramatic headlines shroud often decent reporting and blur the line between hard news and puff pieces.

Journalism today relies mostly upon headlines. The majority of news is absorbed while scrolling past a list of story titles on Twitter and Facebook. News sites don’t like this because advertisers can only tell when you’ve clicked on the article, not when you’ve glanced at the headline. Since most journalistic institutions are pretty much dependent on advertiser dollars —economics website Emarket reports that advertisers spent $171 billion on paid media in 2013—the news has become something of a popularity contest. So what has the media done to catch increasingly elusive and distracted viewers? They’ve started using bait.

Clickbait is a term used to describe a headline that sensationalizes the story underneath it. While this term could be used to describe a legitimate “news” story that’s been dramatized for effect, it mostly describes the desperate pandering that some people call news on Upworthy and Buzzfeed. You may not have heard the term, but you’ve definitely seen headlines like these: “What Happened To These Students Is Awful. What This Official Said Later Is Almost Worse,” “2 Quotes From A Famous Veteran That Show How Much Pain War Causes,” and “The President Might Have Just Saved the Internet.” 

There’s a number of things wrong with these headlines, problems more pernicious than the odd capitalization. The first two are very clearly puff pieces—unimportant stories published solely to make the reader feel good or smart—that entice the reader to click on them via unnecessarily flashy headlines. But the last example, taken from the Huffington Post’s tech section, implies that the president somehow stopped the internet from ceasing to exist. In actuality, it’s a story about how the president gave a speech advocating for net neutrality. Note that “saving the internet” and “asking the FCC to do something” are two very different things. That headline represents the core of the clickbait problem: Every story, regardless of importance or excitement, is given a dramatic headline in a similar style.

Clickbait is generally more prevalent on less reputable pseudo-news sites such as Upworthy and Buzzfeed, websites that produce content based off of news but aren’t explicitly news organizations. However, even the most respected news organizations in the world will stoop to collect the low-hanging viewer. After the New York Times published an article titled “Exercising but Gaining Weight,” it posted the piece on its Facebook page with the caption “One simple strategy may improve people’s odds of actually dropping pounds with exercise.” This tagline is reminiscent of those “one simple secret” pop-up ads we were forced to look at before ad blockers were invented. But unlike pop-up ads, people actually click on these headlines because they’re coming from a place we’re supposed to trust.

There’s nothing wrong with media organizations trying to accommodate their consumers. Making news an engaging and enjoyable experience is part of their job. But the other part of their job is to inform us of things that are important, and keeping these two jobs separate is what allows us to determine which stories are serious and which ones aren’t. While I’m hardly the authority on what’s important, making entertainment look like news and vice versa makes distinguishing the two difficult. 

That’s what makes clickbait so harmful. It encourages the media to produce cheesy stories of little to no importance, and sometimes it completely takes over. As of this writing, Google News, a news aggregate which pulls the most popular stories from around the web, has a story about Kim Kardashian’s naked body next to stories about America’s latest immigration reform plan and a rise in oil stocks in its Top Stories section. The headlines for these aren’t quite as deceptive as my other examples, but they don’t have to be. The media knows that if they put “Kim Kardashian naked” in their headline, people will click. It’s as if the editors don’t realize that we’ve already seen Kardashian naked many times; it’s the main reason why she is famous. More importantly, there is an implicit value judgment that Kardashian taking naked photos is as important as these international affairs that change the lives of billions.

The only way to stop clickbait is to stop biting it. The media delivers what the consumer wants, and if we demand more actual news from our news sources, they will provide it. All you have to do is click. Clicking articles with actual news content that relates to our government and other institutions that affect how we live will create popularity, which will attract the advertisers and the media soon after. You don’t even have to read the article, although it’s usually a good idea. Make the media do their jobs. Stop taking the clickbait.