What this journalist says about click-bait headlines will make pound your head on a wall

There are multiple articles about how to increase social media posts with a set of particular headline phrases and listicles. The current winners are “will make you” and 10-item lists. This has been true long enough for an entire generation now reaching adulthood to believe that all news stories should have headlines like this, which is why so much crap gets by the 20-something college dropouts that work as editors for Facebook and Google.

As I am drawing on my ancient curmudgeon persona here I would like to say that this form of click bait is one very good reason for the loss of confidence in journalism and why we have the government we do today.

I was taught that a headline should be brief and draw attention to the story, but at the same time allow the reader to discern what the story was about without having to read the article. The current paradigm on social media does the first part, but fails miserably on the last. Readers are generally drawn into a story that does not make them do anything, fails to shock them, does not describe a evisceration or anything else that the headline promises. Even a National Enquirer headline is more descriptive and true to the story than most popular social media posts.

When I entered the journalism profession as a copy clerk, I regularly got the chance to sit on the rim of the horseshoe (copy editing desks were semicircular with the news editor in the center of the desk assigning articles to the copy editors for evaluation and correction). On once such instance I was given the responsibility of editing and writing the headline for a review of a movie called The Towering Inferno. The review was not kind, to say the lease. After a bit of thought I tried, “Audience gets burned in Towering Inferno.” I passed the edited copy and headline to the news editor who glanced at the headline; grinned, giggled and slapped the desk thrice; and declared in “perfect.”

The headline was eye-catching because it was both violent and humorous and you didn't need to read the article to get the gist of the story. It was exactly what the heading should do.Today, however, that would be considered a disastrous headline for the SEO of the story because if people skip over the article you can't get them to see the advertising, and that’s the crux of the problem.

Driving engagement is first about selling stuff, giving the reader mediocre entertainment second and getting them to share the content with their network. Delivering information to help people make informed decisions is a distant fourth in importance. But what most social media people forget is that most people never actually consume the content under the headline. Most of the readers just share the information with their friends without spending any time looking at the mediocre content or the advertising.

(A good example of that last revelation is the story about the Google employee who distributed a memo on how men and women are different to explain why diversity programs don't work. Without making a judgement call on what he said, it was obvious from the news reports that the reporters covering the story did not actually read the memo, but instead based their stories on what other people, who also didn't read it, said the memo was about.)

Valuable engaging content is about giving the audience something to think about; to make vital decisions with; to make them productive members of society. Entertaining them and gettingthem to share is advertising not journalism. If you are attracted by these kinds of headlines or you share them, you need to realize you are part of the problem.

(And yes, I realize I used a click-bait headline, but the kind of people I wanted to talk to are the kind that consumes that crap.)