Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Trouble with Headlines

I think the practice of editorializing, or at least over-simplifying, news headlines (combined with the widespread practice of news aggregators accepting bona fide editorials as actual news **cough** Google News **cough** ) comes as a direct result of the need for publishers to rank highly and convert on SERPs, and in social, and inevitably deliver as many ads as possible. In the case of a high-traffic publisher, there is also the need to render their sponsored above-the-fold ads through as many pageviews as humanly possible. Every publisher does it. It's the Right, the Left, everybody. It's clickbait. And it's strictly business. But I don't like it.

Because click-through rates are incredibly low across the web, I can only surmise that seeing all of these short, snappy headlines, and not the content of news articles themselves, only serves to either shape a busy, short attention-span public's opinions, or, perhaps more likely, to reinforce existing viewpoints and further divide the public in to separate "personas" because those are the personas the consultants said are more likely to click on said headlines - a chicken and egg thing. And we can only deduce that the average web surfer has a short attention span because of the low click-through rate combined with the high bidding on popular keywords in ad delivery networks like AdWords, among others. My theory: people don't actually read articles for information - they talk and message with cohorts because they don't trust news media as much as they trust their friends - so the aggregate headlines alone end up driving the "whole story" as far as the average person is concerned. It's really all drive-by media, say what you will about Rush Limbaugh, who famously (or infamously) coined the phrase. But I think there is no better way to describe it. Why? Because every organization wants to be first and scoop everyone else and get first dibs on clicks (and thus more ads served), taking little thought to what their publishing might perpetuate, unless it also means they are deliberately perpetuating bias, though who can "prove" that beyond the eye of the beholder. So, if "The President Scandalously Did Such and Such" is a headline somewhere, that editor wants to be first to publish it so that they can rank highest in SERPs and on popular news aggregators, And, "scandalous" is more colorful and more likely to get those few precious clicks from the dedicated faithful return site visitors than, say, a more dry, objective "The President Did X" headline. Then comes the competition, who wants to be the first to run with "The President Did Not Scandalously Do Such and Such". And so on and so forth. This competition for clicks complicates matters for less popular, unbiased sources of news, further burying any unbiased, objective headlines. Editorialized headlines will win because they fuel and feed pre-defined marketing personas and have built-in audiences. I would say curation is the solution when it comes to SERPs and aggregators, but that's inherently prone to human bias. Instead, we trust certain algorithms, but they can only grep what's been published, so it goes back to the publisher and their quest for higher and higher pageviews from an increasingly fragmented, long tail audience.
Now, this rant was inspired by a friend on Facebook who was seemingly reacting to a post of mine about editorialized headlines with his own politically charged comment. That he did so has actually helped bring my thoughts altogether (thanks, you know who you are). I would say the practice of exploiting the public's opinions, sentiments, interests, or passions by catering to specific market segments which publishers know will agree with, or at least not question, perhaps because they assign a certain value to the reporting because the source is historically reputable or perceived a certain way, to whatever degree, is driven by the market demand to beat a competitor to a click, which makes the matter of running editorialized headlines much worse. For every headline that says "Trump Lied" there would be another that says "Trump Tells Truth". And the other will say the other is wrong and so on. Nobody really wins. And publishers continue to push harder and harder for more pageviews from their audiences by amplifying the number of published messages and compatriot publications and related pages that are all practicing this clickbait behavior, cross-pollinating their content and pervasively inbound-linking thereto without trying to actually foster a rationale public dialog about what literally took place, or to borrow and re-purpose a line from a favorite scripture, 'speak of things as they really were, and as they really are, and as they really will be'. I don't know if it will ever get better.
But, here I am demanding all these rapid-fire publishers apply strict, rigorous, academic-like standards to their headline writing. Who is gonna click on that?