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Clickbait: 'Reliable sources of news are beginning their own digital, tabloid-lite adventure'

But that’s fine, because debunking dodgy writing is really a lot of fun, writes Richard MacCarthy.

Richard MacCarthy Writer and academic tutor

A WAVE OF sensationalism and fake news has descended upon us all, and ironically, it’s the most interesting “real” news story in years.

You’ve got Russian spies, secret dossiers, fascists, bots, pizzagate – even the Pope has weighed in, calling sensationalism in journalism a “very serious sin”.

The hubbub makes exaggeration and media bias feel like new inventions, but you don’t have to turn many pages in the history books before you get to the infamous It’s The Sun Wot Won It.

Yes, that’s a page one, banner headline boast about how The Sun helped sway the 1992 UK general election in favour of John Major’s Conservative party. Not exactly a picture of pre-Twitter innocence, especially when you consider that entities like The Sun really were (and are) political forces to be reckoned with.

So, what has changed?

If the world can tolerate exaggeration and fabrication when packaged as a tabloid, why do the same antics create pandemonium when packaged as tweets, blogs and biased news articles?

Despite the many social, political and economic forces in play (to say nothing of the technology), new media’s current malaise can mostly be boiled down to one problem: online, it’s hard to tell if you’re reading a tabloid or not.

It would be nice to just blame it all on Facebook and Twitter for creating platforms that favour clickbait, or to point out that Breitbart mostly creates political fan fiction. The disheartening reality is that even mainstream, reliable sources of news are beginning their own digital, tabloid-lite adventure.

Semi-mythical US institutions like The Washington Post – the people who broke Watergate – are posting articles that sometimes read like unfinished mixtures of news and clickbait, like the ever-so-slightly alarmist Russia is going to attack our next election. The Trump administration may not even try to stop it.

Oversimplifications and fear-mongering

Needless to say, Trump is awful and Putin is sneaky, but oversimplifications and fear-mongering language and like that surely belong back with The Sun in 1992, not under the umbrella of a news media heavyweight in 2018?

The Guardian probably deserves less criticism that anyone, but even they can get a little tricksy online. Take Russian nuclear facility denies it is source of high radioactivity levels.

The article begins by discussing the detection of radioactive isotope concentrations “several hundred times the norm” found in “several locations” in Russia. The apparently serious incident developed quickly enough to warrant its own “everything you need to know” factsheet.

Yet it still took four paragraphs of suspenseful, retweetable journalism for anyone to mention that the leak was “20,000 times less than the allowed annual dose and presents no threat at all to health”.

Why is it so easy to miss or ignore tabloid-like exaggeration online?

Mostly it’s just that we go easier on opinions we agree with overall. Then it’s little things. Professional-looking websites can make WordPress amateurs look like authorities. Sensationalised headlines work, especially as social media fodder.

The tiny on-screen gap between a “news” and “opinion” tab can make you forget that, on content-aggregating sites like Reddit, opinion pieces are often just provocative headlines over advertising-laden filler.

After accepting that these issues exist (and not just for Fox News junkies), you start seeing problems everywhere.

But that’s fine, because debunking dodgy writing is really a lot of fun. You feel like Sherlock Holmes, casting a critical eye over everything. And not a moment too soon.

If a website’s only trick is to turn the emotional volume up to 11, it probably never deserved your attention. If an article isn’t honest and fair, you’re paying full price for half a story.

Richard MacCarthy is a writer and academic tutor.

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Richard MacCarthy  / Writer and academic tutor

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