Clickbait Tactics Drive the Writing of Headlines on ABC News

I probably should not be surprised, but when I saw this run of several headlines on the ABC News website, I was struck by how deliberately uninformative they are. I added some useful information that could have been in the headline.

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 3.41.26 PMA print journalist writes a headline for someone who’s already holding the newspaper, so giving away the actual news in the headline won’t lose a sale.

But a link title that gives away the goods won’t generate as many clicks, which means fewer ad impressions.

When I first started writing for the web in the mid 1990s, search was primitive, with Yahoo! and DMOZ hosting large, manually-edited directories. Doing successul online research involved working through a list of categories.

If you wanted to know the name of a particular Bach composition, you might click through Lifesyle > Music > History > Composers > Bach, and then find a human-curated list of web pages with brief manually-added descriptions, and then click on each item in the list, scanning the home page of each individual resource, hoping to find someone’s list of Bach’s compositions. Success in information foraging depended on the personal writing choices of the volunteers who wrote pages and contributed to online directories.

I felt personally connected to the people whose website helped me get the information I wanted, and, as a member of a community of scholars like those predicted in Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay “As We May Think,” I felt inspired to return the favor for the rest of the world, by posting carefully-curated web pages about subjects that I knew well.

That meant that I wanted to write the kind of links that I wanted to see when I researched. Not links that urged me to “click here” or that require me to click in order to see what was on the other end of the link. If the link I created gave my web visitor a reason to decide NOT to click, then it was just as useful as a headline that made a reader want to click. (See “Blurbs: Writing Previews of Web Pages,” which I wrote in 2001, and which seems charmingly naive in the context of today’s clickbait culture.)

Readers today are much more used to sampling content that’s spewed at them by a big corporation’s algorithm. We are more likely to be using the small screen of a mobile device while probably doing something else at the same time, so today’s online reader is probably more used to that burn of disappointment that comes when you feel disappointed by what’s on the other end of a link.

Still, I can’t help but feel frustrated to see that a major news organization is using lowest-common-denominator bread-and-circus tactics that I associate with BuzzFeed, ClickHole, and UpWorthy.  Mysterious hyperlinks generate clicking behavior that is easier to monetize than long-form reading, but a method of writing designed to optimize clicks does not.

Having said that, professional journalism has relied on scandal, celebrity, violence, and sex for a long time. (See the story behind the famous NY Post headline, “Headless Body in Topless Bar.”)

What follows is a detail I remember noticing before. The URL forwards to, and features a picture of Walt Disney and a streak of pixie dust.  It’s the home page for Disney Interactive Media, of which ABC television is a subsidiary.

When I am watching TV and I come across a teaser (“What was the chemical that spilled on Rt 30 and why did a cleanup worker need medical treatment,”) I just pull out my handheld and find the answer online (“salt,” and “a news van ran over her foot”) and I don’t bother watching the rest of the TV broadcast.

I am sure that it is only a matter of time before Google and Siri adjust their algorithms to peek past the “what happened next” headlines, so that the search results actually return the thing being teased in the headline, rather than  having the search results return more teaser text that forces you to click in order to find the answer.