Most of you reading this will have discovered it through a link or a share through Facebook. Perhaps some through Twitter or LinkedIn. Others may have stumbled across it as a result of a Google search. Like this article, most of you get your news from those sources in that order. According to Pew Research Centre, 87% of adults aged 18-29 use Facebook, 37% use Twitter, and 23% use LinkedIn. Facebook is used most frequently, with almost 70% of users reporting they visit the site daily, 48% of users check Facebook as soon as they wake up, and 79% of all adults who use just one social media site concede that Facebook is their sole social media outlet.
What this barrage of statistics is really saying is that because of the popularity of Facebook and other social media sites in our lives, our view of the world is largely warped by the news we receive through these forms of media. Even individuals who have chosen to abstain from the social media game are still affected, because the topics and news that their social circle receive are still very likely consumed through Facebook or other social media sites. The information that these individuals receive during their daily lives is indirectly affected by their friends, acquaintances, or coworkers.
This may not seem like a problem at first – after all, by being active on Facebook or Twitter, you stay on top of the pulse of your world, and being current and well-informed on the happenings around the world is important. However, what most of us fail to recognize is that our news feeds are carefully constructed, not just by our tastes as interpreted by the algorithms employed by social media sites, but by the anatomy of online news outlets. If any of you like or follow a major news publication like CNN, CBC, The National Post, Thomson-Reuters, BBC, or Al-Jazeera, what you may not be aware of is that the print, radio, and television bulletins produced by these media giants are vastly different from what is produced for their online followers. Why are there essentially two versions of the same news source? To understand how the online news economy works, first we need to understand the history of the newspaper.
Early newspapers functioned as political bulletins printed by various political parties to publish their platforms and other items of interest to party members. Most of these newspapers had circulations of only a few thousand recipients, were not really functional as a “newspaper”, and their content was strictly informative and of the editorial fashion. The first wave of true newspapers arrived in New York City during the 1830s in the form of The New York Sun and The New York Herald. Both of these papers relied on similar business models: there was no subscription – every paper was sold as a one-off item – and the way these papers were sold was by employing sensationalist headlines, gossip, and coverage of high society.
This type of journalism was called “Yellow Journalism”, typified by these papers’ use of: scary headlines of otherwise unimportant events, large pictures, faked interviews, pseudoscience, fake experts, and a focus on underdog against the system type stories. In fact, one of the primary causes of the Spanish-American War of 1898 has been attributed to Yellow Journalism and the anti-Spanish propaganda contained in the newspapers in the months leading up to actual conflict, even though there was no real reason for a war in the first place. If this pattern sounds eerily similar to modern publications like The National Enquirer or websites such as BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, or Gawker, that’s because the latter are simply modern versions of Yellow Journalism.
A change in the journalism industry occurred when Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, introduced a radically different model of distribution. Instead of selling newspapers with sensationalist headlines and gossip, he introduced the subscription model. For one cent per issue, an individual could purchase a subscription to the Times. The price had to be low enough to compete with the Yellow Journalism papers, otherwise the quality content would get lost in the sea of sensationalism. Since people purchased the Yellow Papers due to price and a lack of other options, Ochs sought to produce a paper whose value far exceeded that of the sensationalist Yellow Papers. Gradually, Ochs’ focus on producing quality content – as evidenced by his slogan for the Times: “All the News That’s Fit to Print” – caught on, and thousands of imitators gradually formed.
Since an issue of a subscription-based paper has already been sold before it’s been printed, journalists did not have to rely on ridiculous headlines or celebrity gossip to sell papers; instead they could focus on quality content, intuitive reporting, and good writing. Journalism began to become a respected and almost academic profession. Newspapers built followers on trustworthy content and quality reporting. This model would stay in place for most of the 20th century, but with the advent of online journalism, a reversion back to the Yellow Journalism tactics began.
Today, the bulk of our news comes from online blogs, and I’m not referring to amateur blogs like this one. I’m referring to BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Slate, Vice, or all of the blogs owned by Gawker Media. As I previously mentioned, even if we choose to follow an actual news agency like the examples listed in the first section, the “news” we receive from their online portals is radically different from what is printed or broadcast over radio & television. The online versions of some our most trusted sources have become diluted to the point where much of their content is indistinguishable from the types of blogs mentioned in the second sentence of this paragraph.
Yellow Journalism papers needed to be sensationalist and controversial to sell individual papers, but accessing BuzzFeed’s listicles from your Facebook News Feed doesn’t cost you anything directly, so why have online blogs employed the same business tactics? Simple: these blogs all generate their revenue from ads, and the amount of money these ads generate for blogs is based on traffic to the site. More clicks = more money. As soon as you click on a blog article, that blog has made money. If you click through a few more articles during your visit, even better. No online blog, from BuzzFeed all the way to the BBC, is immune to this digital economic strategy.
How do they do it? Sensationalist terms are a very broad description and don’t really explain why we click on an article designed with Yellow Journalism tactics, so here are a few common tactics employed by headline creators to get you to click on an article, even if you decide to go back after having read for 5 seconds and been left disappointed.
A tactic used by both Yellow Journalism and modern blogs is to create something out of nothing. For example, remember the dad bod? The article linked to was among the first to “report” on the “craze” of the dad bod, which was ultimately just another example of how blogs create something out of nothing. There is no reason for the dad bod to be in the news. There was no study done on it, no famous new diet that promoted it, there was no reason to create a new term out of thin air except to generate a new string of articles and create content.
The above article was created in April. As I was writing this paragraph, I Googled “dad bod” and there were still new articles being published on it. They varied from a repost by MSN that “introduced” the dad bod to its readers (3 months after they already knew it existed), an article reporting the health risks of it, and an article below that claiming a health study supports maintaining a dad bod. Time has an article claiming that the dad bod is a “sexist atrocity” (using the headline technique discussed below).
Another way is by exploiting a psychological concept called the confirmation bias. The “tendency to search for or interpret information in way that leads to one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors” is routinely exploited by blogs, usually in the form of a falsely reported study or a nostalgic listicle. We may already know that we’re 90s kids, a middle child, have mild OCD, and that we’re night owls, but clicking an article written by a 21 year old with a B.A. in communications that confirms one or more of those traits is incredibly satisfying for us.
The most common way blogs bait you into clicking on an article is by evoking an emotional response – the more intense, the better (in case you haven’t caught on, I purposely gave this article a sensationalist headline to illustrate this tactic). According to a 2010 study by Wharton School of Business Assistant Professor Jonah Berger, the most accurate predictor of virality is anger followed by happiness. So, if a headline either makes you extremely happy or very angry, you’re more likely to click on it to reaffirm your happiness or see just how stupid the subject of the article is (and read the comments written by other readers who share you disgust and counter-arguments). However, one interesting thing to note is that sadness does not spread: only extreme happiness or anger does.
Don’t believe me? Go to Elite Daily and click the first article that pisses you off, which should take all of 5 seconds. Scroll to the bottom and look at the comments. Most are negative, or there may be some bickering back and forth. It doesn’t matter – the article’s subject matter is a pointless essay that doesn’t mean anything. The subject matter doesn’t matter. The article was conjured out of thin air and minted with a emotionally jarring title to get you and as many other people as possible to click on it. When people comment, their activity is shared on Facebook to bring even more traffic to article and more money in ad revenue to the blog.
This is the endless pattern that occurs with online media. Create content out of nothing or out of something as miniscule as a tweet or an Instagram post. Slap on an emotion-inducing headline. Write the article with an angle that can exploit the confirmation bias of your audience. It’s equal parts brilliant and horrifying at the same time. Neither you nor I are immune to the effect even though we know the pattern; the only difference that being wise to online media tactics will make is that you are now more aware of the purpose of most articles that come across your news feed.
As I write this, a new story is blowing up: today it was about Cecil the Lion, tomorrow it could be something offensive a politician said, or an uplifting story about a single mother fighting for justice. And ultimately, these events are handpicked because they generate traffic. The CBC article about Cecil the Lion that I linked to follows the exact tactics outlined in news blog 101: the article was comprised mostly of screenshots from Twitter and plenty of pictures. The story invokes anger from the reader, even though the events ultimately have zero impact on their day to day life.
In his philosophical analysis of the news media, Alain de Botton commented that “When reporting on a tragedy, the news tends to make dreadful conduct seem unique to a particular person. It resists the wider resonance and the more helpful conclusion: that we are all a hair’s breadth away from catastrophe. This knowledge should, if properly absorbed, sink us into a mood of reflective, mature sadness. We are more implicated than we might like to believe in the misdeeds of other members of our species. A lack of a serious criminal record is in large measure a matter of luck and good circumstance, not proof of an incorruptible nature. A clean conscience is the preserve of those without sufficient imagination. Were life, or what the Greeks termed the gods, ever really to test us, we would almost surely be found wanting – an awareness upon which a measure of understanding towards the guilty should be founded.
The tragedians of ancient Greece never forgot this. They liked to tell us how vicious, stupid, sexual, enraged and blind we could be, but they allowed room for complex compassion as well. Through the examples they leave us, we are coaxed into accepting that we are members of a noble but hideously flawed species; capable of performing amazing feats, ably practising medicine or parenting with love for many years, and then of turning around and blowing up our existence with a single rash move. We should be scared.” The News: A User’s Manual. pp 321
Despite this, the story has real world impacts: the dentist who poached Cecil the Lion has effectively ruined his life, all because the online media picked up his story and the world got pissed off for a few days. What he did was by all accounts ethically immoral and wrong, but crimes of that magnitude occur each day all around the world. The difference was that we feel a certain sympathy towards other animals, especially a mammal as prominent as a male lion, but if the same fate had been bestowed upon a human to another human in a far off country, we would likely feel indifferent to the matter. The story blew up because the world was outraged at the matter, and that generates traffic. This is not to say that we shouldn’t care about tragedies that occur around the world, but by preoccupying our time with an event that occurs quite regularly (poaching still refuses to go away, largely thanks to the demand of traditional medicine ingredients in Asia or symbolic dagger handles in the Middle East) we are distracting ourselves from local issues that more directly concern us.
Despite the poor state that the news most of us read is in, there is still hope. We can learn from the underlying lessons the news teaches us, no matter what the source. If we feel anger about a particular story, we should take a step back and ask ourselves why that is. Is it envy? Outrage? We need to positively identify why are we feeling that particular emotion about that particular subject. Perhaps by answering that question, we can use an otherwise pointless story to learn something more introspective. We should also look to articles that we use to support a preconceived notion about ourselves and ask why we need the support of an article written by someone with no relevant credentials to be giving advice on our lives, and instead look to learn from the reason we are seeking that external validation in the first place.
And finally, consider the following: “A flourishing life requires a capacity to recognize the times when the news no longer has anything original or important to teach us; periods when we should refuse imaginative connection with strangers, when we must leave the business of governing, triumphing, failing, creating or killing to others, in the knowledge that we have our own objectives to honour in the brief time still allotted to us.”
– The News: A User’s Manual, pp. 419
The bulk of my inspiration for this article came from these three books. Give them a read!
The News: A User’s Manual (2014) – Alain de Botton
Trust Me: I’m Lying. Confessions of a Media Manipulator (2013) – Ryan Holiday
Contagious: Why Things Catch On (2013) – Dr. Jonah Berger