The Internet happened. It undermined the print model. Media impetus, even at established outlets, shifted. One could deploy all manner of buzzwords and euphemisms. Bluntly, it’s “getting people to click on stuff.”
Headlines (or their social media proxies), the bait for the click, have received greater emphasis. Outlets have precise data about how users react to them. It’s how readers and search engines find a website. Optimizing headlines isn’t everything. In a very real sense, it has become the only thing. Crafting them has become a job unto itself. This has real, startling implications for media coverage.
Humans are attracted to conflict and confrontation. The most exciting, sexiest, or inflammatory tidbit will be the lede and the headline. The media covered a heated, back-and-forth Democratic Primary for months, when the inevitable outcome was clear to all but the most intractable Bernie-ites.
A dangerous problem is seeing the optimal headline beforehand. That can incline outlets to contort facts to meet it, to (consciously or unconsciously) seek information that confirms it, or, while meeting a bare accuracy threshold, slyly mislead the reader into thinking something occurred.
Last week, a story sold that Michigan was the “betting favorite” to win the national title.
ESPN ran a story about Michigan last week. Links and social media sold it as Michigan being the “betting favorite” to win the national title. “Betting” could be interpreted multiple ways.
One interpretation, the more common, was that Michigan was the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the national title. That would have been bizarre and unexpected. It would have changed the paradigm. It would have incited discussion and debate. It would have attracted many clicks. It would have been a great story. It wasn’t the story.
Michigan, as noted by David Purdum in the actual story, was the top public bet. The Wolverines received the most bets to win the national title. Michigan is one of the most popular teams in the nation. They may be the most hyped team entering the season. They have not been this good in a while. They were among the favorites. It would be more surprising if Michigan was not being bet on heavily by folks throwing away money on futures bets in July.
Clay Travis pointed out the flaws in ESPN’s pushing for the Michael Jordan story in the Undefeated. We don’t quite buy Travis’ contention ESPN is a liberal propaganda machine. But, we do buy ESPN being a self-interested journalistic entity. The same dynamic happened here.
Michael Jordan has star power. He is one of the most visible, successful, accessible black figures in mainstream society. He has tremendous potential influence. People have wanted him to take an active political role for decades. When not performing duties with the Bobcats, he has steadfastly spent the time building an immense brand and fortune, playing golf, and making interesting fashion choices.
The current turmoil at last rousing Michael Jordan to make a political stand would have been a fantastic story. ESPN primes readers for that fantastic story with the title “I can no longer stay silent.” The problem is Jordan didn’t do that.
He came out against violence. He cut right down the middle of “Black Lives Matter” vs. “Blue Lives Matter.” He donated $2 million to moderate groups on both sides. Jordan’s act was commendable. It was also as apolitical and unlikely to offend as the rest of his public life has been. The text was accurate. The salesmanship misled readers.
This is far from just an ESPN problem or a sports problem. Far more dangerous is when this headline tweaking moves to things that actually matter. Yesterday afternoon, the New York Times ran with “Bernie Sanders Booed In Philadelphia.” Other outlets ran similar vague headlines often under the “Democratic Convention” tag.
Conventions are interesting when there’s conflict. Fracas and discord on the floor of the Democratic Convention is great for political media. The biggest story that could have happened was a revolt on the floor when Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders was booed. He was booed in Philadelphia. But, the most reasonable interpretation of “Bernie Sanders Booed in Philadelphia” under a “Democratic Convention 2016” header is that Sanders was booed during his speech at the convention in Philadelphia.
He was booed, but at a smaller event with his supporters. His speech at the convention did not happen until around 11:00 pm that evening.
Journalism’s function in a democracy is to create an informed public. Headlines (or de facto headlines in social media), in today’s journalism world, are the first and often the only things people read. They have a disproportionate impact on how the public gets informed.
Some level of cynicism and salesmanship has always been present. It is part of the trade. Outlets need to generate revenue. Journalists need to eat. Headlines must attract people to click on them. But, we can set a slightly higher bar than “technically accurate if called upon to defend it.”
Getting to the truth in graph three or four of the text does not absolve what has become increasingly blatant deception.