Student guest post: Editors should be wary of clickbait headlines

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Katie Schanze is a first-year master’s student studying journalism. She hopes to survive another year of grad school and go on to work for a travel or lifestyle magazine. Her passions are traveling, eating and promising herself that she will go to the gym tomorrow.

If you ask a room full college students where they get their news each day, you are guaranteed to hear two things: Facebook and Twitter. There are bound to be outliers, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that 20-somethings don’t ever pick up a newspaper. But now more than ever before, news is social.

Facebook and Twitter have essentially replaced Google searches for news and browsing news sites for content. This means that readers don’t go out looking for news — they let it come to them.

This is an important change for editors and writers. If people are waiting for a story to pop up on their feed that is worth reading, headlines have the utmost importance in attracting readers. This leads to less of the summary headlines that ruled newspapers for decades and instead more teaser headlines that provide just enough information that the reader wants to know more.

Headlines that are written to be seen and shared on social media often target the curiosity of the reader, and they don’t have long to grab readers’ ever-wandering attention. While straying away from traditional news headlines may entice people to read more articles they might not have read otherwise, this change in news consumption also leads to clickbait.

Scroll down your Facebook newsfeed and you’re bound to see several examples:

Contrary to belief, all of the content in these articles is within the realm of imagination, and none of it is shocking. Yet these articles have been liked on Facebook millions of times.

These “articles,” to use the term lightly, have one thing in common. They have highly shareable, clickable headlines that target reader curiosity through shock tactics.

According to Vox, clickbait is a misleading headline that under-delivers. Clickbait risks readers feeling that they have been duped into clicking on an article. It works by providing little to no information about the content of the article, and instead using shocking, exciting phrases that challenge a reader to find out more.

Those who are in favor of clickbait often argue that if exciting headlines get people to click the link and read something they normally wouldn’t, than so be it. It’s true: Just because a headline sounds interesting enough to click on doesn’t make it’s clickbait. A flashy headline can accurately reflect the content of the article, but at what point does it put the values of good journalism at risk?

Deadspin wrote this headline for a story about the expected deaths of migrant workers in Qatar: “Report: Qatar’s World Cup Expected To Take More Lives Than 9/11”

People clicked the headline to read more, but that doesn’t mean substance isn’t lost. The content in the article does reflect the headline: Around 3,000 people died in 9/11, and over 4,000 are expected to die in Qatar. However, the connection of Qatar to an unrelated terrorist event is misleading, even if the actual comparison is accurate. Readers took notice, and they felt tricked.

It’s easier than ever to attract millions of shares and clicks with a headline, but there is a line that divides the accurate and truthful from the misleading. Journalists should be cautious that the hype for what’s to come doesn’t surpass the article’s actual level of interest.

Editors should be careful about online headlines. To prevent “bad” clickbait, we shouldn’t tell readers what they’re going to feel when they read an article. As journalists, it isn’t our job to tell readers that they’ll be shocked by our story or that they won’t believe it.

Keywords are important but should fully reflect the article in a way that isn’t misleading. A headline can be clickable and shareable without being over the top, and that leads to more value overall.