By now, we all already know that social media is ripe with bad headlines from fake news sites that somehow manage to be shared time and time again, despite coming from pages with domains like “ObamaReptileConspiracy.biz.” The media has decided to make these fake news distributors this week’s pariah, faulting them for Hillary Clinton losing the election and putting pressure on internet companies like Facebook and Google to somehow put a stop to it. There’s no question that fake news sites are out there and are a problem, but blaming them for how misinformed the American people have become is akin to blaming assault weapons for a knife attack: it might not be accurate, but it’ll draw some clicks.
I woke up this morning with an e-mail waiting for me about sourcing. The SOFREP editorial team takes the legitimacy of the sources we use very seriously – it’s our job to keep our readers well informed – which means using a continuously critical eye when seeking news sites that support our claims or positions. It’s precisely because of e-mails like these that I enjoy working here: at no point did the editor that sent the e-mail bring up Search Engine Optimization or click-counters – instead, the emphasis was entirely on the quality of the content we provide our readership. SOFREP’s methodology is to produce quality, truthful news and view points – then let that quality draw in readers.
Although I’ve never met Brandon Webb in person to know what kind of car he drives, I’m certain that it could be a nicer one if he had chosen to make SOFREP about sensational news rather than the truth. He and the editorial team, however, value their credibility over profitability, and that’s something I’ve found to be rare in any workplace, but particularly in contemporary journalism. In one of my many failed attempts to finish my bachelor’s degree (tenth time was the charm!) I spent a year studying journalism – only to drop out as I came to understand the reality of industry was, for lack of a better term, dishonest. It’s a sobering realization I’m reminded of daily as I scroll through the dozen news sites I frequent each morning.
This all brings me to the real problem facing the American news consumer today, and it isn’t fake news sites: it’s misleading news shared by seemingly reputable ones. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to use science as one example, but the issue encompasses all categories of news.
Major news outlets know that you likely won’t read most articles, but they need to do something to encourage you to click on their stories. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, we writers have electric bills and cell phone payments like anyone else and most advertising revenue is based on clicks, but things took a turn when news outlets began realizing there were certain ways they could title stories that would encourage us to click on them.
When you think click bait, you usually think of sites like Buzzfeed that use language like “you won’t believe what happens next!” in their titles to try to drag a click out of you, but a more dangerous form of click bait comes in a far more subtle manner. Here’s a great example:
Multiple news sites reported on the same chocolate based study with headlines suggesting chocolate does everything from having a “magical effect on the brain” to improving your libido. Some even suggest they’ll break down exactly how and why chocolate is such an incredible cure-all for what ails you… but if you actually read the articles to the end, most of them point out that the study didn’t specify the kind of chocolate, the amount of chocolate, or even how the chocolate actually effects the human brain. The scientist who ran the study even goes so far as to say so in an article called, “The Magical Thing Eating Chocolate Does to Your Brain”:
“It’s not possible to talk about causality, because that’s nearly impossible to prove with our design,” said psychologist Merrill Elias who ran the study. “But we can talk about direction. Our study definitely indicates that the direction is not that cognitive ability affects chocolate consumption, but that chocolate consumption affects cognitive ability.”
While that seems like good news for me (since I ate Oreos for breakfast) it really amounts to correlation, rather than causation. They found that people who self reported eating chocolate regularly also did well on cognitive tests… that’s the extent of it, but the mainstream media would have you believe the scientific consensus is that you should eat more chocolate… because they knew that’s what we want to hear.
Remember when stability balls were supposed to replace all our office chairs and, in turn, solve all of our health problems? Don’t worry if you don’t; the internet does:
All of those headlines were born from a study that came to a fairly simple conclusion that any of us might have guessed: “sitting on a therapy ball or standing rather than sitting in an office chair while performing clerical work increases passive energy expenditure.”
Thanks to clever headlines, though, people all over the country immediately began trading in their old office chairs for the life-saving stability ball – only to find that the difference the change made in their lives was negligible, or even negative.
“To be quite frank, I cannot see any advantage or reason for a person to be using an exercise ball as an office chair,” says Jack P. Callaghan, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Spine Biomechanics and Injury Prevention at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Further studies have shown that sitting on a stability ball offered “no meaningful difference” in terms of calories burned, muscles engaged, or posture. That part must not have made it past the editors at the New York Times when they reported that the swap could reduce your risks of “diabetes, hypertension and cancer.” I wish I was kidding.
Now, I’m not saying that good quality news can’t also try to draw in readers. In my short tenure at SOFREP, I’ve already had a few of my articles accused of being “link bait” by commenters on Facebook – there’s a fine line between trying to write about things that people think are interesting and trying to be informative, and all journalists have to walk along it carefully. I’m just glad I work for an organization that sends e-mails about content rather than novelty and that expects us to do our homework before making claims.
Every news reporting site on the internet is guilty of being misleading at some point; sometimes it’s a genuine mistake, sometimes it’s in hopes of expanding the audience, and sometimes it’s just bad writing. The only way to defend against it is to maintain that same critical eye SOFREP’s editors encourage our writers to use. If something doesn’t sound quite right, it probably isn’t. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s likely because it’s not. If a headline makes your blood boil, that was probably on purpose. The news is a business and your clicks and shares are one form of currency: be careful who you choose to pay.
And when you find good quality content, support it.
Image courtesy of CNN