• Wed, 14, Aug, 2019 - 5:00:AM

Why do headline writers keep screwing it?

A former editor once told me ‘Clickbaity headlines are fine, so long as they’re backed up by quality content.’

I think she was right. As someone who comes up with a lot of headlines for my job, I’m often thinking of ways to entice readers. A good headline is succinct – and pointed. The first priority is to summarise content. The second priority is to draw in readers.

It’s that second matter that generally causes all the problems.

I’ve written a potentially risky headline in my time, but I would never refer to statutory rape and paedophilia as ‘sex with underage women.’

(Underage women are children. Children are unable to consent. Ergo, ‘sex with underage women’ is rape.)

Nor would I describe a white supremacist as an ‘angelic boy’.

(People who kill in the name of white supremacy are terrorists.)

And I certainly wouldn’t describe Donald Trump’s lackluster response after a white supremacist terrorist invoked his rhetoric as ‘calling for unity’.

That was a mouthful. Some things just get your goat you know?

Well – in many cases – I think that’s entirely the point. Headlines that get under people’s skin get shared. And shared content is read content.

We’ve got a number of controversy artists in our country – people who are writing (and broadcasting) for two distinct audiences: their sycophantic public, and the people who hate-share their content into the stratosphere. I won’t name names, but most of us know the type. They’re those people who seem to press their thumb down on hot-button issues, who appear to wilfully misinterpret sensitive affairs, or make wildly false equivalences about issues they surely know very little about. They’re the people who make you think s/he can’t REALLY think THAT! They’re those people who dare you – double dare you – to respond.  

There’s a difference between courting controversy and taking an unpopular stance because you believe in something. With the former, there’s little to no skin in the game; it’s an act of cynicism (and it’s no coincidence that, with a few exceptions, the people who court controversy in this manner tend to be white). With the latter, it’s an act of vulnerability – everything is at stake. This is why I take issue with feminist writers like Clementine Ford (among many others) being described as ‘controversial’. Yes, their work may offend some people, but it’s far from cynical – it’s far from controversy for the mere sake of controversy. Or, perhaps it’s better put this way: it’s not created with the desire to be hate-shared.

Do I believe that anyone who’s ever written a stupid headline, or used a clumsy turn-of-phrase, or mistakenly said something out-dated is a cynical troll goading readers into hate-clicking? No, I don’t. People fuck things up, and honest mistakes can make for learning opportunities. But I do believe the phenomena is rife enough to look out for.

So, what’s the solution? Do we ignore the goading headlines? Block and mute the shock jocks? Cover our ears, close our eyes, and sing la la la till we’ve forgotten what we were crying about?   

Something about that doesn’t sit right – and leaving the trolls unchallenged (and uncorrected) seems dangerous. And yet by constantly sharing their work we amplify their message, boost their ratings, and likely secure them their jobs. We also endanger our own metal health when we engage with bad-faith actors. Especially when we engage on a daily basis.

I suggest taking breaks from the type of content that has you screaming into your pillow.

I also suggest responding to things ferociously.

Take it as it comes. 

I definitely suggest muting replies.

And at the very least – when it comes to a headline that’s been written with the intent to stoke outrage – every now and then, when you can help it: don’t click.


  • Media /
  • Controversy /
  • Social Media /
  • Headlines /
  • Journalism /
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