When I worked at a flagship daily for a major media conglomerate, I covered the story of how one of the businesses on my beat managed to overcome a huge operating debt and become profitable. My city editor, however, had a personal grudge against that particular form of business; and when the story broke, not only did the headline make it sound as if the business were still deeply in debt but he had rewritten the lede paragraph to support the misleading headline.
In these days when independent blogs and aggregator sites vie with the mainstream media for attention, one of the major elements used to try to trigger a viral response is to use a provocative headline. That’s because it’s an established that 40% of readers never make it past that headline. Another 20-30% may go so far as to read the first three paragraphs. If you want the reason why bad information gets spread so quickly, that’s it.
As an example, let’s take a story that broke on 5 May in Los Angeles. Democratic primary candidate Hillary Clinton was scheduled to speak at a small college. Prior to her speech, a fair-sized crowd made up of local Latino organizations and activists and Bernie Sanders supporters arrived to demonstrate. There was some shouting back and forth, but the protest was otherwise peaceful. In other words, it was a simple exercise of the right to assemble and of free speech.
TV station KNBC had a reporter on the ground and put the story on its website with the following headline at 5 p.m PDT.:
Protesters Gather Outside Hillary Clinton Rally
The following day, the internet news site Raw Story launched their version of the article, and for reasons I’m sure I don’t have to explain, the headline not only quickly had it circulating on social media but was rousing a slew of anti-Sanders and anti-protestor comment:
Hordes of Sanders supporters shut down Clinton event in LA: ‘She’s not with us!’
There’s only one thing wrong with that: it didn’t happen, as the video clip and the report on KNBC’s website make perfectly clear. Ms. Clinton’s speech went on as planned, and the demonstration was a bit too peaceful for the crowd to describe it as a “horde,” which carries a very warlike connotation.
To make matters worse, the author of the story said:
“The Democratic presidential frontrunner was repeatedly interrupted Thursday as she spoke to a largely Latino crowd in Monterey Park, where Union del Barrio organized a protest against Clinton over her immigration policies and opposition to a national $15 hourly minimum wage, reported KNBC-TV.”
In other words, the article at Raw Story is a hit piece in which the author took facts from the original story, embellished it with allegations for which no support is offered, then topped it with a misleading headline. I mean, does anyone seriously believe KNBC wouldn’t have mentioned if those protestors had forced Ms. Clinton to “cut short her scheduled speech,” as the story claims?
Still, anyone predisposed to be upset had already expressed outrage and passed the link along.
By Saturday, 7 May, at least one other clickbait site had embraced the shut-down fiction, which also showed up on social media. By then, even people highly favorable to Sen. Sanders were in speaking against the demonstrators over their alleged lack of respect for his opponent. The name “Trump,” of course, was quickly dredged up.
Why did so many otherwise thoughtful people believe a crowd of Sanders supporters had shouted down Ms. Clinton? Because none of them did what I did, something so simple it should be standard procedure whenever something with a provocative headline springs forth on Twitter or Facebook.
They didn’t click on the link to the original story.
One of the major problems for internet reporting is that, like their print and broadcast cousins, the media have to be self-supporting. Most of the time, that’s done by selling advertising, and for it to work requires getting as many clicks bringing readers to their sites as possible. Hence, the term clickbait. It’s often used in a derogatory sense, but it’s simply fact. If you can’t afford to pay the bills, you’re done; and if paying the bills means getting eyes on your site for your advertisers, any business is going to do whatever they can to ensure that happens.
People have been conditioned to react with outrage before they check on the facts. And some just don’t want to be bothered, especially if the bait suits their own opinions or prejudices. It’s time-consuming, because sometimes the sad fact is a provocative story may have been spun from milkweed and dewdrops. Worse, since Google is set up to show us search results based on our interests, as stored in their databases from our online activity, we may have to dig through a slew of results pages to confirm the facts.
Still, in this era of corporate-owned media, where the only news we get is what the people in charge have decided is what we need to know, falling for a headline specifically designed to trigger our reflex reactions means something important may be missed. And while there are plenty of reliable alternate sources for news, we must still be wary of believing everything we read.