It’s early, but my least favorite news story of 2019 so far is this awful garbage from T3, a tech news site from the UK, about the Pixel 4 potentially being “modular.” I won’t link to it (nice try, T3!), but I will give you the title and a synopsis.
Essentially, the author argues that a patent (which is public record, by the way – hardly an exclusive) for some modular phone technology filed by Google indicates the (deep, sarcastic breath) ~*~POSSIBILITY~*~ that Google’s next smartphone could use this technology. OK.
The article is bad and wrong, and it’s bad and wrong for very obvious reasons, but many people clicking it don’t know that – and why would they? Most people aren’t huge phone nerds like us, and simply know they read something that is, on its face, not completely impossible, and thus not beyond belief. This article is, of course, complete nonsense meant to get people to click on a largely false premise, and has rightly been called “fake news” by Stephen Hall at 9to5Google.
The crisis of fake news (and I’m not saying that news is fake, merely of fake news as a modern concept) has led some organizations to take society’s growing cynicism toward the media as a wake-up call. To verify, to corroborate, and to follow up. Some, however, seem to have taken this as a reason to grow even more cynical. That is: If all the important news in our world is so distrusted and “biased,” why not just say what we know will excite or interest people and let those people then decide whether or not they believe it?
We all know the answer to this question is “because that makes most of your readers hate you.” And, in the past, this was often sufficient discouragement from that sort of behavior. The internet has really changed that in recent years, and it’s for a reason most people outside the publishing business probably aren’t aware of. Most websites get new traffic (and new traffic is the most important kind) not through growing a loyal readership, but through news portals like Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and Flipboard. These portals expose content to a much wider audience than a simple Google search otherwise would, but they’re finicky: stories that don’t perform well (read: don’t get clicks) don’t get featured as broadly or as long on these portals, and eventually just “fall off” into the news oblivion where nobody will ever click on them again. Thus, there is extremely great incentive to make your titles as clickable as possible.
We give clickability strong consideration at times, in the sense that we want people to understand why a story is important, or what kind of insight we’re offering that would make them curious. All major publications do this, to varying degrees. It’s a balancing act: a title too bland gets you buried under a sea of competing stories, and one that’s bordering too close to “clickbait” will elicit loud complaints from readers. No one is perfect, and every once in a while we do maybe end up doing a little too good of a job, but we certainly never aim to mislead (and we are always monitoring feedback).
Websites like T3, however, have utterly disposed of the pretense that there is a responsibility not to mislead, and seem to operate on the principle that anything that is not a prima facie falsehood is fair game. A click is a “yes” vote on content in the minds of these very cynical people, and complaints are irrelevant so long as the clicks roll in. This is how you end up with the headline you see above, most likely because an editor decided that a research story about nerdy smartphone patents was “kinda boring,” and spiced up his writer’s headline to make it a little more exciting! “After all, this technology could end up in the Pixel 4, we don’t know for certain!” It’s this kind of sham ignorance that has created a misinformation cold war in news, with scummy outlets doing everything short of actually just fabricating evidence in order to generate clickable headlines that get them on top of these news portals. Buzzwords are really important here: exclusive, surprise, dead, killed, huge, massive, crazy, bizarre, shocking, major – you get the idea, I could go on for days (and yes, we’ve used some of those words, but we do try to be very sparing). My least-favorite favorite clickbait comes from Forbes contributor Gordon Kelly, with his Nasty iOS Surprises, which he publishes every time an iOS bug is discovered in a new update.
And he knows they are terrible, because he changes his titles to reflect the actual news content of the story a couple of days later, once the ephemeral traffic from the news portals dies down (and to increase their appearance in search engines with keywords). Authors like Kelly have clickbait down to a science.
This practice has degraded the quality of the conversation we’re having in tech news, and it’s degrading the profession as a whole. We in the business understand that it is part of our job to increase readership and make our publications successful. Many of us, and many people I am proud to call my peers, operate on the unwritten principle that we should also treat our readers with dignity when creating our content, and that we won’t publish something we ourselves wouldn’t want to read. Certainly, the news business is different from the original content business, and we are all inherently competitors. Discovering the critical insight in a story, or framing it in a way that increases its interest to a particular audience, is a practice we all participate in. After all, despite what some may say, the vast majority of people don’t want “just the news” – they want to understand why they should care and what the ramifications of the news are. That is why we don’t all copy and paste press releases or publish every story as a 140-character summary of facts.
So, when you do see nonsense like this Pixel 4 story – do yourself, your friends, and the publications you like a favor: ban these sources from your news feeds, sound off against their social media accounts, and (politely!) tell their authors you feel disrespected as a reader. Because if no one ever says anything, there’s nothing discouraging this behavior – especially when it so successfully fulfills its purpose.
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