I’m an avowed news junkie. I spend a perhaps unreasonable portion of my day perusing my favorite online haunt (read: reddit) for stories of interest, bestowing clicks on those with sufficiently entrancing headlines.
Reddit has always been a sanctuary for me. Its curated pages are largely free of the kind of philistine content I’ve come to expect from news on Facebook and Twitter. But recently, a great blight has spread over my beloved corner of the Internet: clickbait.
For the uninitiated, clickbait is the evolutionary successor of those seedy online banner ads that peddle miracle drugs for weight loss. It’s a metastasis of malignant tabloid sensationalism. More specifically, clickbait refers to articles, list-icles, and general content that’s marketed and presented in such a way that encourages would-be readers to click on them. Featuring extravagant headlines that coax users into bridging the so-called “curiosity gap,” as well as an incredibly diffuse social media presence, clickbait, as presented on such platforms at BuzzFeed, Upworthy, and The Huffington Post, has become ubiquitous. Winter may be coming, but an article entitled “17 Dogs Who Just Experienced Their First Snow” is already here.
So what? What’s so bad about trying to grab readers’ interest? Nothing. Clickbait, truth be told, isn’t necessarily dangerous or distasteful. But when it masquerades itself as real journalism, a proverbial line is crossed.
Let’s consider some examples.
First, we have an article by Benny Johnson at BuzzFeed that the site had the unmitigated gall to call “news.” Headlined “The Story Of Egypt’s Revolution In Jurassic Park Gifs,” this questionable piece of reportage attempts to deconstruct the 2013 ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi by means of a series of short clips from the classic 1993 Steven Spielberg film.
Johnson’s efforts, alas, are not only intellectually demeaning to his audience but also nauseatingly disrespectful to the many Egyptians who have been killed, jailed, or otherwise adversely affected by that nation’s ongoing instability. Comparing Field Marshal Fattah el-Sisi’s coup d’état to a Tyrannosaurus Rex eating a man on a toilet is a gross oversimplification of the situation in Egypt in more ways that one, and constitutes a repugnant breach of the journalist’s informational responsibility to his or her readership.
Immediately below Johnson’s headline comes the following disclaimer: “This post has been corrected to remove phrasing that was copied from Wikipedia.” Need I say more?
Next, we have this instance of hard-hitting journalism: “13 Potatoes That Look Like Channing Tatum.” First of all: yes, this is a real article. It comes courtesy of one Lauren Yapalater, a staffer—a paid staffer—over at BuzzFeed. Let me go ahead and spoil something for you: none of the 13 spuds bears even a remote resemblance to Tatum. This, of course, shouldn’t really come as a surprise. If Jesus only deigns to appear on errant slices of toast once in a blue moon, who would believe that 13 fine specimens of Yukon Gold would play host to Tatum’s wholesome visage? The answer to that is apparently 1,270,771 people—that’s the number of readers who were let down by this “TOP POST” (caps not mine). But, I digress.
This article is praiseworthy, I guess, in that it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not; the author isn’t so much informing as she is entertaining. But troublingly, for an organization that “takes its responsibility to readers very seriously,” BuzzFeed allowed this article to published with the flimsiest of attribution. Of the seven Tatum-’tater mélanges that Yapalater assigned credit to, only the photos of Tatum were attributed, meaning the hard-working potato photographers were left without recognition. It sounds trivial, but attribution is one of the most basic standards of today’s media, and BuzzFeed (along with its cohort) consistently fails to meet it.
Of course, the thing about clickbait is that it attracts views—the bread-and-butter of digital media outlets—like nothing else. Last year, HuffPo averaged nearly 23 million unique monthly visitors, while The New York Times boasted just 16.6 million. But should an uptick in website traffic come at the cost of journalistic integrity? The market might say yes, but ethics say the opposite.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t enjoy clickbait—I hold myself to an across-the-board boycott of BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post, but that’s an extreme policy. Click away on lists of “Mean Girls” quotes and poorly-captioned cat pictures. I’d ask, though, that you follow Nancy Reagan’s advice when you happen across an instance of clickbait that has the temerity to claim it’s journalism. “Just say no!”