| 03.19.2018

The classy clickbait


Readers shoud be aware of the authenticity of the news

I have a dirty secret — one that I’ve tried to justify over and over again, but is no less shameful. I’m a college journalist who prides herself on staying informed about the world and it’s goings on and yet, I sometimes only read the headlines that grace my Facebook feed. I’m too busy to read the actual story, I tell myself. I’ll come back to it later.

It’s only after I try using the little information gleaned from a headline in a conversation and am questioned about the article that I have to admit, “Well … I didn’t actually read it.”

As ashamed as I am of this bad habit, I am not alone.

A number of individuals capitalized on this common behavior this past election season by creating fake online news sources with vague, generic names and sensational headlines.

“News sources” like the Denver Guardian and the Baltimore Gazette aren’t professional publications, but rather bare bones websites with non-working links and fake street addresses created to get clicks, and more money from advertisers, on fabricated stories.

One story claimed Pope Francis had endorsed Trump. Another, that an FBI agent suspected in the Hillary Clinton email leaks was found dead. NPR reported that the latter story was completely false, but was shared on Facebook over half a million times.

The analytics company Jumpshot found almost 80 percent of users who interacted with these websites did so through Facebook. They also found that these false news sources were by and large more popular than actual news sources, such as the New York Times, which received only 20 percent of Facebook’s web traffic, and CNN, which received 11 percent.

Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s founder, has since outlined initiatives that Facebook will employ to crack down on fake or misleading news sources.

Google was also criticized when the top search result for “election vote count 2016” was a fake news source that claimed Trump, who won the Electoral College, was ahead of Clinton in the popular vote. The New York Times reported that the company said it would ban websites that produce fake news from using its online advertising service.

It’s the responsibility of a professional publication to ensure the accuracy and credibility of the work that is being produced.

That being said, there will always be journalists who are more interested in making up the facts than finding them and there will always be individuals who see how the public interacts with the media and find ways to exploit that relationship. It’s important to remember that the few reporters who encourage sensationalistic reporting often receive more public attention than the many exceptional storytellers who value honesty and accuracy above how many clicks their stories receive online.

While publications maintain the responsibility to report as objectively as possible, readers maintain the responsibility to be holistically informed and aware of what they’re reading.

If a headline seems absurd, don’t just accept it as truth — follow the source. Read the entire article. Check out the website. Is there an ‘About Us’ section? Does this publication have a history of strong, credible reporting? Does a cursory Google search show that the news source is more than a couple of weeks old?

If readers finds themselves exclusively reading publications that are notorious for latent political biases, like Fox News or CNN, they should challenge themselves to read an alternative news source with an equally reputable name, such as MSNBC, BBC or NPR.

Another good strategy is reading stories about the same subject that have been published by different news organizations. How does the LA Times tell the story as opposed to the New York Times?

Reading the news to begin with, whether it’s in the form of a newspaper or on the web, is an inherently good practice. Being aware of the authenticity of the news that is being circulated and read is an even better one.

Corrin Bond can be reached at arg-opinion@uidaho.edu or on Twitter @CorrBond

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