As if it needed to be said again: we live in a highly contentious time. With Trump at the helm, and the left and right at each other's throats, we turn to the media to learn about developments in the world to use as political ammunition. “What inexcusable thing did Trump do today?” wonders the liberal, as the conservative scrolls through his news feed, searching for the latest way that the left has destroyed American culture. Journalism is impactful, and the nuances between reports are of the utmost importance as we all, regardless of political alignment, pay eager attention to what appears on our radar. With that in mind, here are is an oversimplified generalization stating the top 5 reasons why clickbait is ruining journalism.
5) The Limitations of “Top X Lists”
One of the easiest ways to get people interested in a topic is to make it a list. By reducing an idea down to a bite-sized, easily digestible presentation of a limited number of points, keeping up to date on the latest news goes from being a reading assignment to an intriguing ranking of items based on relative importance. Unfortunately, it’s not as great as it sounds. Not every story should be fit into 5 or 10 simple points. While pizza toppings can be ranked with ease (bacon is number 1, duh), the Israel-Palestine conflict should not be reduced to a list based presentation. While it may be fun at times, lists remove nuance from stories, and boil them down to oversimplified versions of what they are representing.
4) Oversaturation of the Market
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of clickbait is, “something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.” In a digital era, the success of an article is quantified by the number of times people have viewed it. To put it simply, the more clicks the better. One way to guarantee more clicks is to release more content. Rather than releasing a singular in depth piece, it is more click efficient to release multiple shorter, eye-catching pieces. It doesn’t matter how long someone spends pondering an article, but whether or not they click on the link to view it in the first place.
3) All About the Title
On an average Twitter feed, there will be tweets from friends ranting about their roommates, tweets from celebrities talking about their next big project, and tweets from news sites with links to articles. People discuss the limitations of 140 ( and maybe 280?) characters, but even more limiting is the space allowed in the title of an article. On any feed, regardless of the platform, the title of the article is all the audience will see without clicking on it. Not only does it need to be catchy, but it needs to provide enough information to give the reader an idea as to what it’s about. The title has moved from providing a glimpse into the topic of an article, to being a synopsis of the piece itself. In a desperate attempt garner attention, titles are becoming more and more important to the success of an article, while the content itself suffers.
2) Manipulation of the Reader
In an idealistic world, journalism should be a selfless occupation. It is the job of the journalist to report to the reader. With clickbait, this premise is thrown out the window. Rather than working for the reader, the reader is treated like a resource. Titles such as “The Feud Between Trump and this Republican Senator is MESSY as Hell,” and “How Russians Attempted to use Instagram to Influence Native Americans,” manipulate the reader into clicking on the link. There is a sense of anticipation built after reading the title, and drawn by curiosity, the reader is driven to click on the article. The content of the article then only serves to respond to the curiosity built up. One consequence is a lower quality of journalism, but another more serious one is the feeling of discontent the reader has. Deflated by the lack of substantial content, as well as the unsatisfying resolution to their peaked interest, the consumer is left irritated by the publication. This discontent with the journalism is a dangerous consequence of clickbait, as it leads to the formation of phrases such as…
1) Fake News
One of Trump’s core tenants that won him a dedicated following, as well as the election, was his vocalization about untrustworthy journalism. Clickbait can lure people in with catchy titles, but when the content doesn’t live up to the expectations, the audience will feel lied to. There is merit in calling out inaccurate journalism, but it has quickly devolved to the point where every major news source is surrounded in a cloud of skepticism. While the Merriam-Webster dictionary defined clickbait elegantly, Urban Dictionary does a better job at capturing the frustration associated with it: “When a news article or link has a provocative title in order to get you to click on it. Even though it's actually total sensationalism bullshit.” The glaring flaw of clickbait is the lack of quality journalism associated with it, but the deeper issue is the level distrust that is growing by the day between consumers and news sources.