Headline writing used to be about quickly conveying
information so that someone who skimmed a newspaper or a webpage would get the
gist of an article without having to read too much. Reading a headline and the
lede paragraph would typically suffice.
Headline writers today appear to be conspiring to tell us as little as possible in the headline while simultaneously baiting us into clicking the headline and therefore generating page views (and advertising revenue) for the website.
This is a troubling trend, not just because it goes against the standards set by centuries of journalism, but because it ultimately leads to a less informed citizenry. Traditional journalism has been dying for many years now, and I can’t help but think that when respectable news organizations start using headlines like “You’ll Never Guess which School Is No. 1 in Alums’ Salaries,” their long-time writers die a little inside. And yes, that is an actual headline from an actual respected news organization.
By promising a strong payoff, the headline draws readers into clicking on the story. And the reader will almost always end up disappointed.
Welcome to paragraph six. That subhead I wrote has now successfully convinced you to read enough of my article to keep you on this page for long enough to generate some ad revenue for the paper. Thank you for falling for the trap, and therefore funding my salary. That paragraph probably disappointed you, but I don’t care because at least you read this far.
Modern journalism is ensuring that readers leave disappointed, and if they don’t read the whole story, they’ll be horribly misinformed. Headlines that ask questions are particularly egregious here. If a headline asks a question, the answer is almost certainly either “no,” “probably not,” or “we don’t know.” If the answer to “Did Eric Holder lie to Congress?” were yes, the headline wouldn’t have to ask the question. “Eric Holder lies to Congress” is plenty provocative enough. “Eric Holder probably tells truth to Congress, but give us more time to investigate more” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
But this trend away from informative headlines gets in the way of journalism’s main purpose (to inform the citizenry) in two major ways. Firstly, the lack of actual information in a headline means it now takes more effort from readers to actually become informed. Now the reader can’t know what’s going on unless they actually do click on the article and read through it. Densely packed information has never been easy to dissect, and the internet has not increased American’s attention spans. A population less aware of the major issues of the day is not good for American democracy.
The second problem however compounds on the first. On the internet, “going viral” is the best thing that can happen to a news outlet’s article. This fundamentally changes the way in which news gets covered, and even to the kind of news that gets covered in the first place.
News has long been sensationalized, but this has only gotten worse in the internet era. Reporting on an interview between a journalist and a politician for example is no longer headlined “Ted Cruz offers thoughts on future of Republican Party,” it’s headlined “Rachel Maddow OBLITERATES Ted Cruz’s opinion on the Hispanic vote.” By playing up the drama it reinforces the notion among the populace that politics are overly polarized, and headlines aimed at buttressing partisan victories get in the way of mutual respect for the other side’s ideas.
The confluence of these two phenomena work together to destroy any hope of an electorate that knows what’s going on.
So please, don’t feed the problem by falling for what is obvious click-bait. You’re only making the problem worse, and killing American democracy.