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Headlines in our heads. How to fight them?

Headlines in our heads. How to fight them?

Have you ever given a thought about how most of the modern people, and young people, in particular, learn about what is happening in the world, that is about the news? Certainly, the right answer is from everywhere. But the “power” of different media, namely, information providers, is not the same. Some of us still remember a time when, for most, “newspapers” were the correct answer. At a later date, the focus shifted to radio and television, then the Online media appeared. And then all of them — newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV — had a handle on the fact that if they weren't online, they wouldn't exist at all.

So virtually all media are digital now. But something else has changed too. If earlier people chose one, three, or five sources of information for themselves and read (listened, scrolled through) them completely, now we increasingly receive a personalized news feed, selected from the entire variety of existing content. And social media play a major role there.

Ask yourself what share of news you get from reposts in your friends’ feeds, no matter whether it's Facebook, VKontakte, Twitter, or Odnoklassniki. I believe that a significant one, perhaps even more than 50%. And what does this repost look like in the feed? Usually, it’s a picture, automatically pulled from the publication and its headline.

Speaking of which, the news looks the same on the sites of most Online media and in news aggregators. In Yandex. News are headlines. On the main page of mail.ru and rambler.ru are headlines. Headlines are absolutely everywhere.

Moreover, most often the headline communicates the main content of the news. And since this is the case, then why click on the news itself (especially when it is not so important to us), if we have already learned the pitch and the marrow of it? Better to keep scrolling the feed.

This is rational reasoning and rational behavior. The only thing is it leads us into a trap. This happens in cases when the headline of the news distorts its content, or even directly contradicts it. I have an inkling that everyone reading these lines has come across such a situation at least once. And no wonder, that’s not unusual and not an exception to the rule.

Why is this even happening? Journalists and editors don’t have an idea what they are writing about, or are they deliberately deceiving people? Now and then it happens that they do not understand. But more often the latter takes place. His majesty clickbait is to blame for everything! The aim of a clickbait (from English words "click" + "bait") headline is to lure the reader to the page with the full story, make him "click" on the headline.

It's worth explaining how media headlines are written in the digital age. This is a daunting task in which the editor (headlines are usually his responsibility) must accommodate several things. In the case of quality journalism and compliance, the first thing is the actual correspondence of the headline to the narrative. The challenge is not to distort the content and to succinctly make a point.

The second thing is indexing, namely, accounting by web search engines. No one knows how Google and Yandex algorithms work exactly, especially since these algorithms are changing a little all the time. However, even 10 years ago it was known that a good headline could “up” material in search results, and an unsuccessful one, on the contrary, “move it down”.

Successful in terms of search engines is the one which is "crammed" with the maximum possible number of keywords related to this particular story. First and foremost, proper names and nouns play a crucial role. At the same time, the headline must feature at least one verb. This requirement a while back seriously changed the "newspaper" concept of headlines. Subtle allusions, hints, puns, and hidden quotes a la Kommersant of the 1990s have almost dropped out.

The third thing is the very same clickbaitiness. A good headline should be "catchy", it should create tension in the reader, arouse interest in his brain, which can only be satisfied by clicking on the link, and learning the details. The second and third factors have the same aim to attract more readers.

And this is not a matter of mere vanity. The number of views is the main accountability, editor’s KPI to the owner of the publication, witness of his/her work efficiency. This can cause objections and discontent, but this is almost always the case and is true for both the “yellow” and the most authoritative media. Because qualitative measurements are much more difficult and subjective. Views are as simple as ABC and an understandable tool for everyone. Yes, now they are trying to measure "visit depth", "scroll depth", time spent on the page, and whatnot. But clicks still come first.

Here, the editor is always tempted to embellish the news, to make the headline brighter, more explosive, more striking than the story itself. Many editors succumb to this temptation every now and then. And on this path, they often completely break away from the main story. And some of them think that's the only way it should be. This is where the notorious clickbait comes from.

Here are some recent examples. Soon after the news of the hospitalization of the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov in Moscow with COVID-19, Russia Today published the news under the headline "Emelianenko went public about Kadyrov's condition." However, the very first sentence of the story reads: "The fighter Alexander Emelianenko said that he was not aware of the state of health of the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov." Not only is there no news occasion, but also the headline deceives the reader. Three days later, the headline was changed to line up with reality (“Emelianenko said that he did not know about Kadyrov’s condition”), but certainly, the news had already collected its “fraudulent” views by that time.

On the other hand, a large regional publication of a different slant than the state-owned RT — Znak.com. The same story. On May 22, the news appears under the headline "The State Duma will consider a bill granting men priority when entering a university". Whoa, the reader will think! Why exactly? What kind of blatant sexism is it? But what about the army?

He clicks on the news and learns that we are talking about the bill of the former State Duma deputy from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia that men with a vocational school or college education should be given priority when entering a university in pedagogical major. Little difference, isn’t it? Besides, the reader will find out that this draft of the bill has been hanging out in the Duma since 2017, it was postponed all the time and now it is a coin toss whether it will be considered. And then the journalist honestly reports: “This draft of the bill will most likely be rejected. The Committee on Education and Science has already recommended it for rejection."

Similar to RT, the headline was eventually changed. They went for a quote from a story, and the previous headline became a cross-headline. But the internet never forgets. It is enough just to read the URL of the story, which matches the old headline. 

There are also less obvious cases when there is no sheer deception, but there are distortions that can have rather harmful consequences. For example, the headline in Izvestia, as well as in Lenta.ru and Rossiyskaya Gazeta dated April 29: "A mathematical model predicted the peak of the coronavirus epidemic in Russia." You can only dream how many people out of the millions who have seen the headline imagine how mathematical modeling actually works, and how many of them fancy some kind of robot, a black box or a glass ball that has inhuman intelligence and magical abilities, and therefore it knows how to predict the future. So why wonder at people's belief in liquid chips, digital Gulag, and blind fear of "artificial intelligence"?

Even leaving fantasy aside, we can state that this headline is poor. Because there are hundreds of mathematical models, and each predicts its own timing of the epidemic peak in Russia and in the world. And only by clicking on the link, one could find out that it was about a specific model of a group of analysts from Sberbank, which predicted this very peak for the first ten days of May. 

On April 26, headlines of some media announced that "Four people died in France from an experimental medicine against coronavirus". At which point, there was no talk of any experimental cure for coronavirus in the news story. They tried to treat patients with the well-known and proven anti-malaria medication hydroxychloroquine, as well as the equally well-known anti-HIV medication Kaletra. Both agents had strong side effects and at long last, they were off the table.

There are plenty of such examples. But here is the question: what to do with all of it? The first obvious wish for many will be — to ban, punish, impose fines, hide in the feed. And even some made attempts in this direction. For example, in May 2017, Facebook announced a rating downgrade for posts where the headline and story do not match. Have you noticed any changes? I doubt it.

Many journalists and editors condemn clickbait on paper, although de facto they continue to fall back on to it now and again. But not everyone condemns.

“There are at least two reasons to stop teaching others how to write headlines. First, content is just another type of product that needs to be tailored to the interests of consumers to sell. And the second, if readers were really angry with clickbait headlines, did not finish reading the story and never returned to the odious sites, then most of the publications would have closed long ago for lack of traffic and a constant loyal audience," writes Marina Karapetyan, Commercial Director of Medialeaks. 

For readers, the news is new information enriching or adjusting their world-building. For a media manager, this is content to be sold. Sales go up, people click and read — the mission is accomplished. And the consequences are no longer his/her concern and responsibility. In these words, you can feel the judgement. This is partly true. But first of all, it’s a description of media structure in this part.
For an understanding of the bare fact that putting it right or changing it globally is very difficult, if not impossible. And it will not be happening soon if it does at all.

But what about the readers who do not want to get distorted and inaccurate information? I fear that
I do not know of a good answer to this question. You can stop seeing dozens of headlines a day only by completely stopping using social media, and possibly the internet in general. Very few people will accept this path.

It is also impossible to click on all the headlines in a row you had a glance at. It is enough to make one’s brain reel, and no life is well for that. So what should you do?

The only option I know is to increase your awareness of information consumption. Try to memorize at least approximately what and how you know. It is one thing if you read the available stories on some topic, spent time, tried to understand and form your own opinion. But the entirely different thing is if you've only seen one or several headlines. These are essentially different cases. And if in the first case it is reasonable to have your own opinion about the event and broadcast it to someone, then in the second case it is better to admit to yourself that you do not know anything about the subject and forbid yourself to have an opinion about it, and let alone share this opinion with someone.

It is most likely that you will not be able to automatically start remembering where certain knowledge comes to your head from. It is a skill that develops over time and, like any other skill, depends on the number of training and repetitions. But for the majority of people who want to master it, it seems to be quite achievable.

The author of the story is Ilya Ber, project expert trainer, a teacher at the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration under the President of the Russian Federation (RANEPA), head of the Quizdom content agency, video game editor, TV presenter, publicist, historian. In 2009-2010 — program coordinator of BBC Russian Service, in 2012 — news observer for RIA Novosti, in 2020 — columnist for Provereno on RTVI.

Photo by Taras Shypka on Unsplash

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