This One Weird Trick Generates Clicks: On Clickbait and Public Trust

[Upworthy Parody Headline via @UpWorthIt Twitter account]

Do you believe article headlines that you read on your social media feeds?  I’ve been asking this question of students as part of my dissertation research to begin my understanding of how students make sense of new media and elements of the world around them.  I’ll admit, I’m not so sure how I would answer the question myself.  Although I’ve been let down often by hyperbolic headlines that promise to “restore my faith in humanity,” I’m probably still a bit too trusting in terms of my expectations of news stories online.  Is this relentless optimism or gullibility?  Perhaps both.

Upworthy, Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and a sea of others have all adopted the practice of writing sensationalized headlines that help to drive traffic to stories.  “Clickbait” headlines have become so endemic on online news sites that it makes me wonder: What does this style of journalism (a term I use very loosely here) do to the average media consumer?  What is the end result of this trend, if it is one that will continue?  Is this a positive feedback loop that will result in a complete erosion of public trust in modern media?

I hesitate to pose such wide-reaching (and unanswerable, for the moment) questions, for fear that I might also be engaging in hyperbole. However, let’s consider the 24-hour news networks.  Looking at the big three (MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN), you don’t have to search far to find a clear parallel.

When I was a kid, I remember the teaser commercials for the local news saying things like, “What you don’t know about this common household cleaner may be putting you and your family in danger.  More at eleven.”  A mere taste:

In theory, the 24-hour news networks were supposed to give us hard news that went beyond this style of reporting.  In reality, the news networks have nudged further and further away from in-depth, investigative reporting and towards tactics that are aimed exclusively at building viewership above all else.  I would argue that these methods jeopardize public trust in information, and thus threaten the public good.

Perhaps the most striking example of cable news’ failure to inform is the absolute reliance on/abuse of (pick your favorite) the phrase “breaking news.”  Just one recent example can be seen below, in which an interview on government data collection is interrupted for breaking news on…a Justin Bieber hearing.

With each false alarm sounded by the media, public trust in these outlets erodes.  Do people stand up and take notice when “BREAKING NEWS” flashes across the screen with the same attentiveness now as they did even 15 or 20 years ago?

It is this same sort of desensitizing process that I fear when headlines set up news items that simply aren’t there.  As more and more sites shift to the clickbait tactic, how do we separate the actual “mind-blowing” and “amazing” from the ordinary?  Logically, a fair expectation might be that the stories that used to pack a punch may soon be overlooked.  The analogy that I keep coming back to is the idea of slash-and-burn farming.  This farming technique clears areas of trees for short-term farming, and it results in poor soil quality.  Farmers then must shift their efforts to a new area and repeat the process.  Similarly, I wonder if the short-term tactics of the media degrade the public trust in information, resulting in the impact of words being compromised.  Eventually, we may tune out and become more difficult to reach.

XKCD wins again.