Formatting news like mindless media causes mindless consumption
By Danny Fisher
Maybe Colby Itkowitz of the Washington Post isn’t dumb enough to believe that Alaska Representative Don Young actually wants to use wolves to reduce the homeless population in cities, as she extrapolated from his comments during a House Natural Resources Committee meeting on Thursday for her March 1 Washington Post political news blog post… Maybe she is just a crummy enough reporter that she has to resort to link-baiting and editorializing in order to get people to share her work on Facebook. After all, wouldn’t a story about a crazy Alaska coot who wants to kill homeless people get more clicks than one about a reasonably impassioned politician fighting for his state?
Some may come to Itkowitz’s defense, claiming the protections afforded to bloggers. I would hold her to the same standards as a journalist, however, as it does not become apparent without more research that the link being shared navigates to a blog. The page is on the Washington Post’s website – a news website – without any indication that it is a blog. The subject is politics news, and Itkowitz’s profile at the bottom even refers to her as a reporter, leading the reader to believe that he or she is consuming legitimate news.
Unfortunately, Itkowitz isn’t the only person using cheap tricks to get more views – and let’s be honest, they’re views, not reads. Journalists struggle to maintain relevance when people are more inclined to spend their time reading short interest pieces or lists with interesting titles. So, writers pick up techniques from those folks who spend their time creating media for mindless consumption. Think Buzzfeed, pictures with captions, or the latest life-hack list. Are these appropriate formats for news writing?
Here’s an illustration of the tactics some journalists are using to keep their views up:
These journalists increased Facebook shares by 300% by making these four easy sacrifices to journalistic excellence – Find out how!
1. Write a catchy (if misleading) headline.
“Rep. Don Young: Wolves would solve homelessness” – Headline of Itkowitz’s article
You want likes? Want shares? Want publicity? Write a catchy headline! Doesn’t matter if it’s accurate, as long as it gets you views!
2. Quote people out of context for greatest shock value.
So what if someone is discussing apples and you make sure it sounds like they’re talking about oranges? Oranges are more scandalous.
3. Ignore the actual topic in order to spend more time making a public figure seem ridiculous.
Bury that lede so deep, a petroleum engineer wouldn’t find it! (The lede, in journalism, is the most important information in an article: the who, what, where, when, and how that should be in the first paragraph if not the first sentence.) The actual discussion about wolves being on the endangered species list doesn’t matter. Neither does the fact that a letter sent by over 70 congressmen in support of their slot on the list, not one was from a district that would be effected, which is what Young was getting riled up about in the first place – the video of Don Young’s comments can be found online. It’s all about that man that says we should kill homeless people by way of releasing dangerous animals into population centers.
4. Editorialize, editorialize, editorialize.
“Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, famous for his salty tongue and brusque demeanor…” – Itkowitz’s chosen lede
Who SAID that Young has a tendency toward salty language? It doesn’t matter who said it, because you thought it! There’s no need to find someone to attribute biased language to; you need that fiery adjective NOW so you can use alongside the bitlink in your tweet.
Does it look familiar? Perhaps from your Facebook feed? Maybe the last piece like the above you read was about 50 Shades of Gray, or Disney Easter Eggs.
There are three easy rules to follow in order to write GOOD news: be clear, concise, and correct. Reporters in the case of Don Young are worshiping the second C by being writing short pieces, because it holds people’s interest easier and that’s in line with their agenda. However, they are sacrificing the other two by being unclear about the context and incorrect in suggesting that the man truly thought homelessness could be solved via ravenous wolf infestation.
The kicker is, if you write news in the same format as media designed for mindless consumption, people will consume it mindlessly. People are reading the headlines and first few sentences and re-sharing with comments about how crazy and heartless Young is to want to use wolves against the homeless – the consumer continues to spread misinformation caused by crappy, link-baiting ‘journalism.’
See Itkowitz’s originial article here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/in-the-loop/wp/2015/03/05/rep-don-young-wolves-would-solve-homelessness/