See what I did in that headline? I appealed to “you”, the reader, challenging you to see if you will actually “believe” what I am supposed to tell you in this article, without really telling you anything in the headline. I also added an iconic photo of Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone that evokes a feeling of surprise and terror to enhance the reader´s curiosity for the article even more. (Hopefully) you clicked on it, thinking “oh, it can´t be that bad, I will actually believe how clickbait works, let me click and find out”. This despicable headline, which I used solely for the purpose of better illustrating the topic of this article, is a textbook example of clickbait.
As clickbait (unfortunately) continues to be trending, I thought I´d re-surface a research paper I wrote on this subject a couple of years ago. Here it is.
Exploring clickbait in today´s media
As I scrolled through Twitter, my eyes stumbled upon a headline from ESPN titled “The NBA´s secret addiction.”
The headline came at a time in which the NBA realm buzzed with conversations about potentially allowing players to consume prohibited substances such as marijuana to enhance recovery and healing. I clicked on the tweet driven by a great deal of curiosity. Would this story reveal a league-wide addiction to drugs?
But Baxter Holmes, the NBA beat writer for ESPN who wrote it, didn´t uncover any drug scandal or explore the clandestine use of these substances in the league. As it turns out, the story focused on NBA players´ fondness for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
It was just one example of how media organizations big and small, respected and dubious, have increasingly turned to clickbait or versions of it to drive traffic to their stories. Headlines have always worked to grab readers´ attentions, but in the digital world, the competition is now so fierce that news organizations seem to be taking it farther, and may be eroding their audiences trust in the process.
Research from the Pew Research Center in 2016 showed that 55 percent of online news consumers get news when they are doing something else, and not when they are actively looking to read news at that moment. News are getting to readers, rather than readers seeking out news.
With the fear of losing readers to competitors, more and more news outlets are turning to controversial practices to hold on to their audience. Clickbait is certainly one of these practices.
“[Clickbait is] a way to create headlines destined to grab the readers´ attention, to stimulate a click by appealing to curiosity rather than anticipating the most important elements of a story,” said Dolors Palau, a professor in the Department of the Theory of Languages and Communication Sciences at the University of Valencia in Spain.
“It is linked to a minor type of content, `fun facts´ and anecdotes, and to a very poor treatment of information in the search for sources and in the profoundness of topics,” Palau said.
News outlets strive to find a loyal audience and fight with each other to gather new readers and subscribers that ultimately give them the necessary attention and revenue not even to thrive in the news business, but just to survive in it as the competition gets fiercer.
“Publishers of all types are under tremendous pressure to generate revenue beyond the traditional subscription model, which means increasing impression share of their content, irrespective of whether that content is online advertising inventory or clickbait content,” said Dan Shewan, a web content specialist who has worked for The Guardian and The Independent, among others.
This “media blood bath” is a double-edged sword. The dispute for readers and audience forces media organizations to stay light on their feet to adapt to changes in the industry. It can also promote excellence and quality among certain organizations, as they try to set the bar higher than their competitors in a fight to maintain and attract new readers.
But this fast pace also poses a threat to the integrity of journalism, its commitment to the truth, and the trust that readers have in the media. Massive volumes of information can translate into a decrease in quality and a higher level of difficulty to keep these organizations accountable for what they publish.
“It feels like journalism is trying to follow the lead from marketers when it comes to clickbait. The problem is journalists are supposed to really be telling us factual, well-researched information,” said Liz Froment, a freelance content writer and strategist whose work has been featured in Forbes and Software Advice, among others.
“I’ve seen that more often than not the journalist doesn’t get a say in the final headline, so having a misleading or super clickbait-focused headline does do them a disservice. When people talk about trust issues with news media, this type of stuff is what I think about,” Froment said.
Every headline, whether clickbait or not, has the same goal: to get the attention of the reader and, specifically in the digital realm, to generate the highest possible amount of clicks. It is the wording used in clickbait and the content it leads to what makes its use a threat for journalism.
“What sets clickbait apart is that they are using these tricks of attractive, creative headlines in order to push and sell really low-quality articles,” said Yimin Chen, a doctoral candidate in information and media studies at Western University in Ontario who researches Internet culture.
Clickbait headlines use one of the most powerful tools to attract readers: psychology.
“People have written about this ‘curiosity gap’ idea where they give you a couple interesting bits of information but not the complete piece of information. If the headline says ‘you won’t believe what happens’, well, that makes people interested, and if they want to see what happens, they have to click through, and if what happens is something completely pointless or boring, then that would be successful example of clickbait,” Chen said.
The general perception is that clickbait is a hallmark associated to websites with dubious reputation which distribute false news, rumors and hoaxes, but that trend seems to be changing and spreading to some of the most well respected sources.
“The rate of dissemination is unprecedented, for sure. I don´t know if tricks have changed too much, but I am noticing that a lot more news outlets, even respectable ones, are violating some of their own rules for how to construct headlines in the most informative ways, so they do realize that clickbait does work and gets their attention,” said Victoria Rubin, director of the Language and Information Technology Research Lab at Western University in Ontario.
“The mechanism is effective and it´s going to be more tempting, so the question might be what is on the other side of the clickbait,” Rubin said.
Rubin refers to an approach that switches the focus point to the story behind the clickbait headline in an effort to evaluate if the story actually delivers what the headline promises by using disputable grammatical structures or elements that constitute these “hooks.”
For example, after reading Holmes´ headline, and more specifically the word “addiction” in it, the reader can create an expectation that the headline would lead to a story about illegal substances, because of how often the concepts of addiction and drugs are associated with each other.
On top of using the word “addiction,” the headline alone does not provide any information to the reader, other than stating there is a “secret addiction” in the NBA. More traditional (and perhaps more ethical) journalistic practices dictate that the headline should reveal at minimum a tiny bit of information about the story. A headline like “The NBA´s secret addiction is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches” would have constituted a more “acceptable” and non-clickbait example.
At the same time, that headline would be undoubtedly less intriguing and wouldn´t leave the reader wondering what the addiction is after reading it. It could prompt readers to click through just because it is an unconventional, funny headline, but not because of the curiosity it generates.
Some of Rubin´s research focuses on developing ways to automate the detection of clickbait, false news and other similar types of content to potentially inform readers of the quality and nature of what they are consuming, allowing them to identify low-quality pieces of information. She points to education as the crucial step to ignore clickbait and stop consuming it.
“When we see news, a lot of the times people just don´t have that easy recognition of patterns, and that´s where the education piece comes in. The more we encounter patterns, the more we make them obvious, the more generally a person reading the news would realize `oh yeah, this is just another form of triggering my attention and hooking me in, and manipulating me, and trying to get something out of me,´” she said.
While media organizations are responsible for spreading clickbait, readers play an equally important role in its expansion by clicking on it rather than ignoring it. “This wouldn’t really be much of a problem at all if there was just a higher mainstream level of critical reading and thinking abilities,” Chen said.
While ESPN´s story is informative enough to diverge from some of the characteristics of clickbait, its headline generates an initial expectation on the reader that does not correspond with the content of the story. Is “The NBA´s secret addiction” clickbait, or just a creative, legitimate way to tease a story?
You’ll have to click to find out.