The landscape of online news has changed dramatically, especially since the rise of pay-per-click and pay-per-view advertising. This shift has had a profound impact on the quality of written content across various platforms.
The Impact of Advertising Revenue Models
The advent of revenue models based on clicks and views has led to a significant shift in how news is presented online. The primary goal for many content creators has become generating traffic, often at the expense of journalistic integrity and quality. This model rewards sensationalism and controversy, incentivizing publishers to focus on what is most likely to attract immediate attention rather than what is informative or true.
The Transformation of Established News Outlets
No website is immune to these pressures, including renowned news sources. For example, CNN, a well-established news network, has published articles with titles like “Stop what you’re doing and watch this elephant play with bubbles” in their news section. Such content, while potentially engaging, marks a shift away from traditional editorial standards towards a more click-driven approach. This change reflects a broader trend in online journalism, where attracting viewers often trumps accurate news coverage.
The Strategy of Misleading Headlines
Another common tactic is the deliberate use of misleading or vague headlines. Titles like “New study shows people can lose weight by eating this common vegetable” are designed to draw readers in, often delaying or obscuring critical information about the story. This practice, known as “burying the lede,” manipulates readers into staying on the page longer, increasing the likelihood of engaging with ads or other content on the site.
The Rise of Controversial Content
To maximize engagement, many outlets have turned to posting articles that are argumentative, controversial, or incendiary. It’s a challenge to make people click on or share things that are true and supported by evidence. Content that provokes a strong emotional response, whether it’s agreement or outrage, tends to get more clicks and shares. This trend encourages writers to focus on emotionally charged content, often disregarding its accuracy or relevance.
The Future Challenge: AI-Generated Content
The future of online news is poised to become even more challenging with the introduction of generative artificial intelligence. This technology can lower the cost of creating and A/B testing content by a significant margin. It allows for the rapid production of more clickbait and controversial content, potentially flooding the internet with low-quality, sensationalist material. The concern is that the content of every website, even the most reputable ones, may soon resemble that of our spam folders.
Developing Personal Heuristics for Skimming Content
As the quality of online news continues to face challenges from clickbait and sensationalism, it’s essential for readers to develop strategies to find reliable information.
One effective strategy is to develop personal heuristics for quickly assessing the quality of online content. This involves learning to recognize and respond to certain “red flags” in articles, such as sensational headlines, lack of credible sources, or an overtly emotional tone. By identifying these signs, you can save time by avoiding low-quality articles and focusing on more reliable content.
Utilizing Tools for Pre-Screening Content
Several tools are available to help curate and pre-screen online content, reducing your exposure to low-quality articles:
NewsGuard: This tool rates news sources based on their credibility and transparency, providing a simple way to assess the reliability of content based on its source. However, it’s important to note that NewsGuard rates sources on an average quality basis, which might not reflect the quality of individual articles. Some sources have high variance (e.g. great news articles and terrible opinion pieces), which would not be accurate captured by an average score. NewsGuard is oblivious to this nuance and scores all articles based on the publisher’s “average” quality, which may not tell you much about any specific article.
AllSides.com and Ground News: These platforms offer insights into the political bias of different news sources. They can be helpful in understanding the potential slant of an article. This is great, to the extent that every bias can be mapped to our political left-right axis. Unfortunately, low-quality is not always the result of bias, and an article’s slant is not always left-wing or right-wing – for instance, in the Israel-Gaza war, the extreme left and extreme right both tend to be Pro-Palestinian, whereas the center-left and center-right both tend to be Pro-Israel.
Otherweb: Leveraging artificial intelligence, this tool pre-screens articles for common red flags like clickbait headlines or a lack of references. In essence, their algorithm looks for the kind of red flags that you’d be screening for anyway (clickbait headlines, lack of references, bombastic language with too many adjectives, etc) and provides a bullet-point summary and a nutrition label (with a list of the outputs of each AI model) for each article – helping you figure out whether something is worth consuming before you consume it. This purist approach comes at a price – and sometimes the models might classify things incorrectly since AI is not perfect – but it acts as a great way to filter most of the junk out and customize your feed to your own liking.
Embracing a Balanced News Diet
Beyond using tools, it’s crucial to cultivate a balanced approach to consuming news:
- Diversify Your Sources: Don’t rely solely on a single news outlet or aggregator. Explore various sources, including those with differing viewpoints, to get a more comprehensive understanding of the news.
- Stay Informed About Media Literacy: Educate yourself on media literacy. Understanding how news is produced, the factors influencing it, and the common tactics used in sensational journalism can make you a more critical reader.
- Engage with Content Critically: When reading an article, engage with it critically. Ask questions about the source of the information, the evidence presented, and the possible motivations behind the content.
Conclusion: The Need for Vigilant News Consumption
In an era where the quantity of information is overwhelming and its quality often dubious, being vigilant and selective in news consumption is crucial. By developing personal strategies for evaluating content, using helpful tools, and maintaining a balanced and critical approach to news, you can navigate the online world more effectively. Remember, in a landscape crowded with clickbait and sensationalism, your attention is a valuable commodity. Choosing where to direct it can not only improve your understanding of the world but also encourage better practices in online journalism.