The Weird World Of Clickbait

A recent online story in one of our most popular mainstream news  sources shouted this headline: “Jimmy Kimmel Wrecks Car in Head-On Collision.“

A typical reader of that headline might react with this: Wow! That sounds terrible. Isn’t he the comedian with the sick baby? What horrible luck! He’s probably in the hospital. Did anyone die?

 To find out, the reader needs to click on the headline. And that is the whole point. Once the reader clicks, the owner of the news outlet gets what he wants: a click. Why? Digital ads today are sold by click rates.

Clicks are today’s equivalent of newspaper circulation wars of years past. Back in the mid-1890s, the quest to increase newspaper distribution became a battle in New York. The rivalry was between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. They competed for eyeballs by writing ever-increasingly sensational headlines. Some say their feud contributed to the start of the Spanish-American War as the newspapers spewed anti-Spanish sentiment. 

The intensity of that newspaper battle led to the creation of a word for the sensationalism, “yellow journalism,” a name that some say partly came from a yellow-dressed kid cartoon published by both papers. According to Timeline, even Mussolini in 1925 complained about the yellow press in newspapers being “ready to stop at nothing to increase circulation and make more money.” 

It turns out that Mussolini was complaining about reports in the paper about his ill health. They turned out to be true, but it didn’t matter. It was impossible to discern who was telling the truth —  newspapers writing sensational headlines or politicians calling them out for false press. The reader was left to his/her own devices to figure out what was accurate and what was not. Sound familiar? 

Leaving Mussolini, Pulitzer and Hearst in the past, let’s return to our Jimmy Kimmel story because, gosh, maybe they are making funeral arrangements by now.

Clicking on that headline revealed that not only did he not totally wreck his car, but he wasn’t even hurt. He and the person he hit both got out of their cars and went to the side of the road to call insurance and police. The car was damaged but fixable. A reader would be forgiven for feeling fooled and misled into the story.

Somewhere between yellow journalism of yesteryear and clickbait of today, we had a period of responsible media, or so I am told by many who grew up in that era. These were the years of Walter Cronkite on the evening news. These were the years of life with a morning paper and an evening paper — if you were lucky, one or two of each in your town.

The rules for news were simpler then: “If it bleeds, it leads.” But the reporter had to have sources to back up the story, and the reporting had to be accurate and transparent. However, with yellow journalism, as with the clickbait of today, many headlines promised blood, but delivered barely a bruise. 

The Kimmel headline was written to make readers think he was bleeding. That’s clickbait.

The more people that hit play on the video, the more the company can charge for the ad. Ever wonder why some annoying websites automatically start a video when you open the page? Well, you just got counted as a video hit with auto-start so they can charge more to advertisers. It used to be that auto-play made real publishers turn up their professional noses as a tactic being beneath them. But these days, it’s happening a lot more.

Clickbait can be easy to identify and avoid. Some clickbait headlines leave out a key element to lure in the reader. An example of this is: “This Girl Was Headed on her Dream Date, and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next.” This typical headline can easily be identified and avoided by not clicking. 

The headlines that are harder are the ones that purposely deceive or mislead — like the Kimmel story. His collision was sensationalized beyond the truth to get readers to click. A reader needs a

Ph.D. in media literacy these days not to get duped into being just a click that makes an online site money. 

Jimmy Kimmel is OK. No Injuries. But his accident earned one news agency a lot of money in click-generated ad revenue.

Maybe that publisher can cut Jimmy a check for his service?

Marybeth Sandell teaches journalism and communications at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

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The Weird World of Clickbait