What’s in a headline? Online journalism and the fight for clicks

Luke Balvert | Account Manager Media

Hands up if you have ever felt cheated or frustrated when you click on an article only to think “wait a minute… I haven’t learnt anything from this”, or “this could have been summed up in the headline”. 

The headline promised so much more.

I’ll admit this is a daily frustration whenever I navigate my way through particular news outlets and their respective social media posts (Facebook) for my fix of current events.

Through my personal account and those of clients, I constantly find myself having to decipher what is proper news and what is a sensationalist headline, and if its the latter I push back with “I won’t give them the satisfaction of clicking through to this article”.

I also find solace in reading the comments of those who share my dismay at the way in which news publications are feeding society’s hunger for drama and gossip.

For example, a Newshub Facebook headline “Can you spot Meghan Markle’s fashion faux pas?”. Or this one: “Ex-Bachelor producer reveals secrets from the show”. The comments are revealing.

“Who really cares – 1st world problems.”

“Meanwhile in Syria…”

“Well done. You should be able to sell a few extra papers with this story.”

“I’ve never wondered that (about the Bachelor). But I have wondered what’s going on with the war in Yemen.”

Just this week I saw the headline ‘Is it a terrible idea to make your pet a vegan?’ The mind boggles.

But at the same time, these headlines are drawing people in and getting the intended result. Every comment, ‘like’, or click through to the article is considered to be engagement.

Headline writing has long been considered a skill but, in the digital age, a new word has become synonymous with online journalism – ‘clickbait’.

Clickbait, according to Urban Dictionary, is “stuff on the internet that misleads people to content that is false or of low quality or irrelevant for monetary gains”.

The fight for online attention is cut-throat, and the result is headlines that are sensationalised headlines, misleading, or lead to advertising content.

Every platform is doing their best to manipulate your eyeballs and thoughts to their advantage.

It’s simple economics; the more clicks they get, the more people on the site, the more they can charge for advertising.

Take a look at these contrasting headlines on a simple cricketing injury.

  • Black Caps’ massive injury blow for test
  • Mitchell Santner ruled out of England test series, Todd Astle called in.

One plays a straight bat with the news while the other coaxes you into the article to see who has been injured. I know which one I would click (and did) but as mentioned above the fight to secure those clicks means a more sensationalised headline could win.

News organisations must walk a fine line to hold on to their reputations and credibility while battling for clicks and ultimately revenue.

It is crazy to think how fast the media landscape is evolving and constantly shifting to fit with society’s media tastes and maybe more importantly, mould them.

As a young journo in a newsroom a few years ago, I quickly learnt one of the golden rules is that your introduction should grab the reader straight away.

If you cannot hold someone’s attention for a sentence, you have no hope of getting them to read the rest of your article.

The same is true for headlines.

Clickbait headlines may achieve this goal, but under false pretences. Which begs the question, “Is this a true reflection of what we want to read?”

Do we really care about what ex-bachelor Art Green ate for lunch or the latest sex-fuelled scandal from Married at First Sight?

I know that I would rather read facts and hard news about politics, sport or innovation in the ‘real world’ and how it might shape our society and lives.

But that is just me and I realise we are now living in a society which thirsts for the dramatic and sensationalised.

I believe we must plot our own paths around the clickbait-contaminated Internet. This means filtering between false and real articles and of course developing a healthy scepticism.

Just pause and think “What is the intent behind this?”, and “Am I being manipulated here?”

The choice is ours.