Clickbait and metrics

Media ventures have always measured their audiences, whether they counted total newspaper circulation and single-copy sales or studied their Nielsen and Arbitron ratings. And seeking to push those numbers up is another longstanding media practice, from “sweeps-week” TV series to tabloid headlines to promotional efforts.

Similarly, digital news organizations will measure their performance in a variety of ways, including page views, unique visitors, video views, social-media sharing, engagement and time on site. You will likely succeed both from the standpoint of ethics and from business performance if you focus more on building audience (loyal, repeat visitors) than simply measuring traffic (number of times people click on your stories). Measuring digital performance is not inherently unethical, but “clickbait” headlines or social media posts that seek to deceive users into clicking on a story are viewed with disdain in much of journalism.

“Fluffy” content also is not inherently unethical. Serious investigative journalism has followed silly situation comedies on television for generations and shares space in newspapers with horoscopes, comics and crossword puzzles. So cat videos, pop-culture quizzes and other light Internet content aren’t really ethical concerns, as long as headlines don’t mislead and the content was produced ethically.

If metrics guide a news organization to produce more fluff and less watchdog journalism, that’s unfortunate but not necessarily unethical. A better course, if you believe in the importance of watchdog journalism, might be to use your metrics to devise better ways to present watchdog journalism, so more people will see it, engage with it longer and share it more on social media.

Search-engine optimization also follows longstanding practices of trying to persuade people to consume journalism content. Print headlines serve the same purpose as digital headlines and newscast promos: trying to get people to read or watch the news. Ethical issues would arise if a headline is misleading to be more effective in attracting search traffic or if you include misleading information in metadata. (Deliberately misspelling a word or name in metadata isn’t misleading; it’s an effort to guide people who might misspell the word to a story they would be interested in reading.)

Factors to consider in how to boost your digital audience:
Does the story back up the headline and the social media post? Enticing headlines are as old as newspapers. If your headline or social media post entices and the story delivers, that’s just good headline writing.
Does the headline or social media post “tease,” asking a question or holding back something important in hopes that the reader will click through to find the answer? Again, this is a longtime media practice (before many broadcast breaks, for instance). The question governing whether it is ethical might be whether you deliver on the tease. Is the question answered? Does the reader or view feel cheated when finally reading or viewing the promised content?

In attracting viewers for your content, do you reach out to likely interested audiences? Or are you buying robotic clicks that won’t deliver value for your advertisers? These decisions might be made outside newsrooms, but journalists should know about the ethics of your organization because they may reflect on the whole operation.

The main author of this module is Steve Buttry of Louisiana State University.