Reputable news organisations should steer clear of clickbait journalism

Ask any news editor, and they will tell you that crafting a headline that succinctly captures the story’s main thrust is one of their biggest headaches.

Being a news editor and an active journalist, I have gone through this nightmare countless times.

In front of you is a good story with several shocking revelations and many prominent players.

You determine this would be the lead story for the paper or platform. You write several headlines trying to capture the main essence of the story, but some are long, yet the space is limited (for print).

Let’s take the Karamoja iron sheets saga, which has played out over the last few weeks.

Its gist is senior public officials, notably the vice president, speaker, prime minister, and a handful of ministers, were accused of diverting iron sheets meant for the people of Karamoja for personal use.

What kind of headline would you write?

Would you go with: VP, five ministers accused of diverting Karamoja iron sheets, or would it be, Nabbanja, Alupo accused of diverting iron sheets for Karamoja given the fact that the prime minister is a more prominent public figure compared to VP Jessica Alupo and would sell the news?

How would you find accommodation for the speaker in the headline since she is prominent and leads an institution that is supposed to oversee the executive?

Would the headline, Nabbanja, Among divert Karamoja iron sheets for personal use, accurately capture the story?

All these are major headaches that news editors grapple with daily.

For traditional newspapers that face an existential threat occasioned largely by the growing influence of social media platforms, crafting catchy headlines has become their lifeblood.

One of my editors often said that a good headline is the best salesman (or woman) for a newspaper, especially in countries like Uganda, where many people are triggered to buy a newspaper based on the headline.

This has meant that in some cases, editors have been forced to write headlines that are ‘catchy’ but do not give an accurate picture of the story.

Here is one example.

On February 18, Saturday, Monitor led with a story: A-Level students to study for five years.

According to the newspaper, the proposal is contained in the new A-Level curriculum that is being developed by National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC).

Predictably the story generated heated debate on various social media platforms where an image of the first page was shared.

Many people argued that it would be “unfair” to subject learners to five years of A-level given that they spend four years at O-level and another seven at primary level. Some said the financial cost to parents would be huge.

One suggested that if that was the case, all university courses should be shortened to one year.

This, too, was my first impression when I read the headline.

Delving deeper into the story, I realised that many people who reacted angrily did not read beyond the headline.

If many readers had read just three paragraphs into the story, they would have come across this statement: “According to the proposed amendments in the A-Level curriculum, the tenure for A-Level will be a minimum of two years and a maximum of five years to enhance inclusivity.”

This statement means that fundamentally, A-Level will be undertaken for two years as the case is today. However, those who cannot complete the level within two years have up to five years to redo the subjects that they failed.

So, why the hullabaloo?

Who is to blame for this reaction?

Is it the readers who rushed to draw conclusions based on the headline or the newspaper whose catchy headline appeared misleading?

In my view, I would side with the readers whilst acknowledging the predicament the editor must have faced while drafting the headline.

Whichever way you look at it, news headlines must conform to one of the central tenets of journalism: accuracy.

According to the BBC guide to writing news headlines, when drafting a headline, “the most important thing is to make sure it is clear and can be read and understood in a single glance.”

The guide adds that the “trick is to interest, intrigue and give a real sense of the story to the widest possible audience – without being sensational.”

Therefore, an editor must ensure that difficult as it may be in some circumstances, they ought to craft headlines that accurately capture the story and are not sensational.

In my view, two accurate headline suggestions for the story should have been: Students to be given up to five years to complete A-level or Students have up to five years to complete A-level, but I know some people would argue that these headlines would not “sell” the paper.

Even in these unpredictable times, newspapers, whether print or online, must strive to be accurate in their reporting and the headlines lest they lose even some of their few customers.

Imagine you bought sugar from a supermarket believing it weighs 2kg (because it is written on the pack’s label), only to discover that it is 1.5kg; you would feel short-changed. You may even vow never to buy sugar from that company.

This is the feeling many readers get when they buy newspapers or scan through news websites and discover that headlines tell them one thing and the story another.

In a nutshell, news organisations with a name and a reputation to protect must steer clear from the so-called “clickbait” journalism popularised by some online news sites, which carry sensational but misleading headlines to lure readers into clicking on the story.

Edris Kiggundu is the chief executive officer of Bbeg Media, an online multimedia company and team leader at The Story Idea, a nonprofit news website that covers climate change issues.

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