I don’t read newspapers anymore, and so mostly depend on news aggregators or social media sites to find news items and articles of interest. I am sure there are many others like me, and a result of this trend is the rise of clickbait journalism. This is a menace every internet user would have come across, whether or not they know it by that name.
What is clickbait journalism?
To help the uninitiated identify this ubiquitous phenomenon when they see it the next time, let us look at a recent example related to the State Bank of India (SBI) revising minimum balance requirements. Naturally, those who have an account with SBI will be interested in knowing how it will affect them. Let’s look at the typical design of a title for this news in different digital publications.
Classic journalism: “SBI reduces minimum average balance from Rs 5000 to Rs 3000”
Clickbait journalism: “SBI revises minimum balance, here is what you need to know”
In classic journalism, a good headline is one that gives a good summary of the news that follows. Its purpose is to give you a fair idea of news and help you decide whether you want to delve into the details or not. On the other hand, the purpose of a clickbait title is to pique your interest, incite your curiosity, and make you follow the link to the article. To this end, it will only tell you what the article is about, make you think it is important, and will strive to prevent you from drawing any conclusion from it.
The example we have seen above is only a mild form of the menace. Some of the worse ones will have a title such as “This actress was asked about her rumored affair with this actor and her response will shock you”. The title is long enough to contain a novel, but will not give a hint of what the actress said. When you click through to the article, it will have an interview of the actress with many questions, one of which will be related to the title, and there the actress will have dismissed it as having not even a shred of truth in it. The only shock you are in for is that the actress doesn’t say anything shocking at all!
Factors contributing to the trend
The reason many news outlets have gone from informative and crisp headlines to long ones aimed at tricking users into visiting their site is the shift in how news is delivered and how it is monetized. When a reader subscribed a full newspaper, whether he read each of the individual news items or not was of least concern to the publisher. Instead, they had an incentive to convey in the headline exactly what was covered in an article, because readers are more likely to subscribe to newspapers which make it easier for them to find and read what they are interested in.
On the other hand, in new age digital journalism where subscriptions are rare, focus is on attracting users from news aggregators and social networks to their own websites to read that one article through any means including misleading titles. Even if the actual news item does not meet the expectation of the reader, it usually doesn’t affect the publication much, because most people usually don’t remember the name of the website on which they read a news. The next time they come to this site would again have to be through these aggregators or social media and, once again, what can land a user is not the reputation of the publication but similar tricks. Further, the sources that manage to get clicks also tend to show up higher and more prominently in the user’s feed. This means that the feed of a person who takes the bait will over time be dominated by such news items.
We can relate this scenario to the food stalls in a busy railway station or bus stand. The unending and ever-changing crowd means that there are always new customers to be found. Even returning customers rarely remember their previous experience (unless the food is absolutely unpalatable). Most of these travelers may end up buying the most appealing items from the stall that sells at the lowest price. So shops that use artificial colours to make their dishes attractive and inferior raw materials to keep them cheap will possibly have more sales.
The case of journalism is not much different. Once a user has clicked on a link and reached their page, the publisher gets revenue for the ad impressions generated. The only incentive for them to make the article good is that it can improve the chance of the post being shared. But the rate of sharing is generally very less for this to be a major concern. And when people do share, it is not usually because of the quality of journalism, but for some other personal reason like the post backing their own political point of view.
What can we do to fix it?
While this is a problem that is too big and widespread for any of us to do anything about, there are small things we can do which will improve our own experience, and contribute in part to make the world better for everyone.
For one, don’t take the bait, ever, no matter how much the temptation. If I see a clickbait title in my social stream and I want to know more about it, I search for it online and find the same article in another more reliable and higher quality site which does not resort to such cheap tricks. When I do that for a while, I get to see more articles from that publisher in my social feeds or on Google News (which is my preferred aggregator). To a much lesser extent, I am sure it affects the rank assigned to this publisher in others’ feeds as well. In Facebook, I often use the “Hide all posts from …” option to let the page admins know of my disapproval. On the other side, we can bookmark and share good articles and publications so that they reach more people and are able to keep good journalism alive, rather than be forced to reduce their standards.
As readers, we may not be paying digital publishers anything for subscription, but we’re still paying them with our time and attention – which is a very scarce and valued resource in today’s world. This gives us the right to demand quality. The way we can make this demand forceful is by actively rejecting bad journalism. In that respect, it is in our own hands to decide the quality of what we get to read.