Trust, balance key in journalism’s fight against clickbait

clickbait and journalism

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Peter Barron on clickbait
Peter Barron

The world is overflowing with so-called news about the Royal family, teeth whitening, celebrities, and bizarre diets. What does Queen Elizabteth think of Prince Harry? Has Angelina lost weight? And what should you do about that exploding spot on the edge of your chin ahead of your date tonight?

There may be psychological and scientific reasons for some people’s love of clickbait. The human brain seems wired to explore crazy headlines, even though we know we’re being manipulated. But the effect on journalism has been detrimental.

In the last few years, there have been many worthy pieces written about the impact of clickbait on good journalism, including Jeffrey Dvorkin’s work for PBS, and Guardian Editor Katherine Viner’s classic How Technology Disrupted the Truth.

But what about the impact of clickbait on local journalism and, in particular, campaigning journalism? We turn to Peter Barron, journalist, author, and speaker, to find out how clickbait has changed local and campaigning journalism.

Peter was the longest serving editor of The Northern Echo, one of the U.K.’s best known regional papers, known affectionately as the Great Daily of the North.

He is recognized across the U.K. as one of the leading journalists of his generation and is perhaps best known for reviving The Northern Echo’s campaigning traditions. Peter stepped down in 2016 after 17 years, but still writes for the paper.

Clickbait and campaigning journalism

You have achieved so much with The Northern Echo’s campaigns. Of note are ones which helped raise money for a children’s hospice, helped bring the Hitachi train-building factory to North East England, and cut heart bypass waiting times after the death of friend and colleague. But today you find yourself calling for preservation of campaigning journalism in the face of clickbait. How exactly is clickbait impacting campaigning journalism?
For me, the most important word in journalism is “balance”.

Finding the right balance between the demands of building a profitable digital audience and maintaining journalistic integrity is the core challenge facing our industry.

It’s clear that the long-term future for local journalism is digital but we shouldn’t sacrifice the loyal audiences we still have in print in the mad dash to win the clickbait race. We still have many strong, profitable print titles in the UK regional press. Yes, almost all of them are facing declining sales, but they are still a vital part of the media mix and will be for years to come.We’ll see daily print titles increasingly being turned into weekend products with digital platforms during the week.

However, whatever the format, the industry can only survive if it has a foundation of quality journalism. There has to be a place for the kind of campaigning, investigative journalism that changes the world.

In the 1960s, Sir Harold Evans edited The Northern Echo before moving to the Sunday Times. During his time at the Echo he campaigned to established cervical cancer testing as part of the NHS and I often wonder how that kind of worthy, vital campaigning journalism would have fared in today’s clickbait world.

My biggest fear for our industry is that, increasingly, journalists are judged first and foremost by how many clicks their stories generate. While I understand the commercial pressure driving that, it isn’t difficult to guess which kind of stories generate the most online clicks: sex, scandal, gossip, celebrity, stomach-churning video nasties.

It was once suggested to me that I should be leading The Northern Echo on stories that had generated the most clicks on line. At the time, the most clicked-on story on our site was about a man from Harrogate, North Yorkshire, (on the outer edge of Echo territory) who had a medical condition that gave him an 18-hour erection. Imagine leading The Northern Echo’s print edition, the paper of Harry Evans, on an 18-hour erection in Harrogate!

We have to build online audiences that attract advertisers or we die. But we have to do it with a balance that doesn’t make our printed products worthless – and which allows for quality, campaigning, investigative journalism which has been such an important part of the provincial press.

Clickbait undermines trust

As much as you dislike clickbait, you’ve got to admit that it’s potent. Headlines that fire us up with anger, give us a belly laugh, temp our curiosity, or tug at sentimentality can be impossible to resist at times. How can journalism compete?

I have nothing against headlines that fire us up, make us angry, make us laugh, tempt our curiosity or tug at sentimentality. Some of the most important campaigns I’ve been involved in have been driven by anger and there’s nothing wrong with that anger being captured in a headline – in fact, it should be.

When Darlington father-of-two Ian Weir died of a second heart attack at the age of 38 because he’d waited eight months for a heart bypass operation, I felt very angry indeed. The Northern Echo went on to successfully cut heart bypass waiting times in the U.K. from an average of 12 months to three months – in line with the rest of Europe.

Where we have to be extremely careful is to avoid the headline not being backed up by the story. It’s all very well tempting readers’ curiosity but not if they discover that the story falls short of their expectations. Trust between the publisher and the reader must never be undermined. In the clickbait world, where it’s hard to know what to believe, credible journalism, produced by trusted journalists, will surely come to the fore.

I remember during the last U.K. General Election when it emerged early in the day that a UKIP party candidate had been missed off ballot papers in Darlington, social media went into a frenzy with claims that the election would have to be cancelled in Darlington. National websites began to publish the rumors.

The truth was that only 80 or so ballot papers at one polling booth were affected. The local government’s response was to call me at The Northern Echo asking for us to use our website and social media reach to urgently put the story in the correct context. The election wouldn’t have to be cancelled, the 80 affected voters would be contacted, and it wasn’t the disaster that had been presented.

In short, journalism can only compete by staying true to its long-established principles of accuracy and balance. It’s a long-term fight but the local press has a unique relationship with communities built on greater accountability and trust. We must absolutely make the most of that position.

Good journalism: balance and accuracy

Publishers have really struggled with the internet and the way it broke the old model of doing business. That in itself led to a growth in clickbait, with websites desperately competing for traffic. Today, many media outlets use exaggerated headlines to get readers to click on a story. In your view, what’s the best way to handle headlines and content when the pressure to generate the big numbers on the web is so great?
With key words, locations, emotion, people – but, above all, accuracy. I remember a running story online about a missing student from Durham University whose body had been found in the river by a police diver. The original headline was “Missing Durham student’s body found in River Wear.” The story was doing well online but there was a huge surge in the number of hits when the headline was updated to include the emotion of what the diver had said when he found the student’s body: “I’ve come to take you home my friend” – the words of a police diver when he found the body of a missing Durham student.

Aren’t news publishers between a rock and a hard place? Creating real news stories or solid features that are researched properly and well-written requires an investment. Yet we’re in an age when media organizations are getting rid of resources. How can publishers and editors commit to quality in this environment?

I accept that it’s very difficult because editorial resources have been cut due to the decline in advertising. Again, it’s about maintaining a balance. A lot of local newspapers would be out of business now if difficult decisions hadn’t been taken on costs. But, in the end, our business depends on quality journalism.

If we don’t have that as the bedrock, if we go too far, we lose our place in the media environment and that would be disastrous for democracy.

The end of clickbait in sight?

The election of President Trump in 2016 appears to have heightened the focus on clickbait. Google and Facebook have both responded by trying to prohibit misleading ads. Are we entering an age where we could see the beginning of the decline of clickbait?
I do think there is some evidence that we are beginning to see the tide turn. There is a greater awareness of click-bait and publishers guilty of losing their sense of balance are being found out. You can only mislead readers for so long – they soon cotton on and you won’t be forgiven for conning them. The whole “fake news” frenzy is making people question their sources of news more closely. Hopefully, credible, trusted local journalism will be the place they go.

There’s been a steady decline in local journalism around the world and, despite newspaper web traffic increases. How do you see this impacting local democracy and dialogue around important community issues?
As I said earlier, the local press has a unique relationship with the communities they serve. Local papers, and their websites, play a vital role in holding public bodies to account, and campaigning for change.

With editorial resources reducing, it’s harder to cover council meetings etc, but local papers still fulfill that function more than any other section of the media. I don’t know how that can be maintained long-term – I just know it has to be for the sake of democracy.

Extending the news media’s reach

That early ideal of the internet promised something more democratic and equal, a platform for unheard voices with important messages. It promised greater learning, sharing of knowledge, a way of reaching out beyond our confines (geographic, intellectual, whatever they are). Do you think there is a way that editors and journalists can help us get to this place?
Thanks to the internet, we have a greater reach than ever. More people read titles like The Northern Echo than at any time in its history – the problem is that not as many people pay for the privilege. Perhaps I’m idealistic and naïve but, after 35 years in the local press, 20 of them as an editor, I still fundamentally believe in the power of quality journalism to enhance learning, share knowledge, reach out – and change the world.

Journalist, editor and author Peter Barron

Peter Barron is an award-winning journalist, author, and speaker. He joined The Northern Echo as a reporter in 1984 after spending three years as a trainee with the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph. Peter rose through the ranks to become deputy editor of the paper before leaving to edit a nearby newspaper, the Hartlepool Mail, in 1997.

Peter returned to The Northern Echo as editor in January 1999. In 2013, he was awarded a Member of the British Empire (MBE) from Queen Elizabeth II for services to journalism and community life in the North East of England. A year later he received a lifetime of achievement award from the U.K.’s Society of Editors.

Peter is  author of seven children’s books and has his own media company, Peter Barron Media. You can follow Peter on Twitter (he has twice been named the most influential user of Twitter amongst North East England media) and find him on Linkedin.

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