IF YOU DON’T READ THIS ARTICLE I’LL KILL A PUPPY: Sensationalism and Journalism

It’s a temptation that we all face as writers, how much can we sensationalize an issue in order to get people to read our story.

When this is done in headlines it’s commonly referred to as Clickbait and it’s very successful on it’s best days and skirts the edges of journalistic ethics on its worst.

I know, I know, those of you in the “New Media” are saying right now “Journalistic ethics!? Why should we care? The MSM gave those up ages ago!” Yeah, they did.

That doesn’t mean we have to become like them though.

Now there is good clickbait and bad clickbait.

Last week I wrote an article for Damn Straight Politics that had the headline “CFL Light Bulbs Will Blind Us”. This was a bit sensational and it did draw in readers. However when reading the article there is no reason to feel like the headline duped you into clicking on something that wasn’t what it seemed. There is ample evidence in the article that CFL light bulbs are putting people on a faster track for developing optical problems that could lead to partial or complete blindness.

That’s good clickbait.

Bad clickbait makes you feel cheated. You were sold a bill of goods when you read an interesting headline and the you read the article and you realize that whoever wrote the headline was just dishonestly sensationalizing a bit of otherwise boring news that, in many cases, ought not have been “news” in the first place. When it crosses the line to outright lies that will mislead people intentionally, that crosses an ethical line.

Take this headline:

Screenshot 2014-01-13 at 4.28.07 PM

This headline appeared on my newsfeed this afternoon and I clicked the link expecting something truly heinous that would disturb me greatly. Something that would incense me to write an article about Universities prying into people’s private lives.

Instead I got this.

Boyd’s two-year contract states, in relevant part:

For so long as Dr. Boyd is President and a single person, she shall not be allowed to cohabitate in the President’s residence with any person with whom she has a romantic relation.

This isn’t even close to some sort of heinous control over someone’s sex life. Anyone with reading comprehension and half a brain should be able to see that.

Unfortunately we know that 90% of readers of news are only reading the headline and skimming the contents, so they end up with a completely false impression of what is going on. All because of a misleading headline.

This is true of readers of the New York Times as much as it is true of the Daily Caller (where this headline originated) and journalists SHOULD be taking this into account when they write an article/headline.

It’s the first thing we were taught in Journalism 101. Most people are not going to read the entire article, they will read the headline and the first paragraph and they might skim the rest, so you can’t afford to write something misleading that won’t be corrected until the end of the article. You write in a pyramid shape, headline then important details in the top paragraph and you branch out to my general information further in the article.

Format is actually sort of important with news and as much as I hated that semester I majored in Journalism, I did learn a few useful things.

So here’s some quick guidelines on headlines:

  1. Don’t misquote – If your headline quotes someone make sure you give the quote context in the article and make sure your use of the quote isn’t skewing the meaning.
  2. Don’t mislead – Don’t say someone or something is involved when they aren’t. Make sure any claim you make in the headline can be backed up with analysis of facts in the body of your article.
  3. Don’t lie – If you write an article then you clearly know the content and what’s going on in it. Don’t claim something that isn’t true just to make the headline sizzle a little more.
  4. Do make it interesting – There’s no reason why you can’t make a link look clickable and interesting while not breaking the other rules.

– No puppies were harmed in the writing of this article –


Daily Caller has become more and more guilty of this over the past few months, especially with their coverage of Common Core, but now apparently in other areas as well. I don’t care how you feel about Common Core, but when the articles about it are blatantly misrepresenting it in their headlines (and the content of the article does not support the headline and many times actually shows the Common Core is not responsible) that is unacceptable. I know they think it’s fun to blame Common Core in every education related foible in the headlines these days, but it’s flat dishonest. I don’t know who is at fault, but standards are slipping so much that I have decided to remove them from my RSS newsfeed.