Last month, The Telegraph published a story about Lola Olufemi, a black student at Cambridge University. The article covered Olufemi’s efforts to address the predominance of white male authors on the English Literature syllabus. She submitted an open letter, signed by hundreds of her peers, which called on the school to ‘decolonize’ the curriculum by including more writers of colour.
Although this story was an important one which could serve as a springboard for larger discussions of racial bias in education, The Telegraph’s coverage was wildly mishandled. They promoted the story on their front page with a large picture of Olufemi accompanied by the headline, “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors.” The issues with this headline are clear at first glance: not only is it misleading to suggest that Olufemi’s focus was on ‘dropping’ white authors from the syllabus rather than adding more authors of colour, the submission of her open letter did not ‘force’ any action on the part of the university. Cambridge itself confirmed these facts, issuing a statement to establish that any potential changes were still in very early stages and that the addition of new authors would not force existing ones to be dropped, as “that is not the way the system works” (Khomami).
In the face of backlash, The Telegraph published a correction the following day, stating, “[Olufemi’s] proposals were in fact recommendations. Neither they nor the open letter called for the University to replace white authors with black ones and there are no plans to do so” (Student Target). However, the damage had already been done. As pointed out by BBC presenter Samira Ahmed, The Telegraph’s choice to put Olufemi’s picture on the front page without any explanation of the “more complex story” seemed almost “as if [it were intended] to incite trolling” (@SamiraAhmedUK), and this result was certainly achieved. After the article ran, Olufemi recieved an enormous amount of racist and sexist abuse online. She believes that the article’s provocation of these attacks was “not by accident. That is a very purposeful thing that [The Telegraph] is doing” (Khomami).
Whether the article was an intentional incitement of abuse or merely an example of irresponsible reporting, it provides evidence of a growing problem in the world of journalism: the clickbait headline. Now that so much of news transmission occurs online, publisher’s priorities are changing. It’s always been important for headlines to grab attention, but this goal has become even more focal in a world where online publications must drive ‘clicks’ to their page in order to generate ad revenue. Some publications pay journalists additional money for a story if it drives a significant number of clicks; for example, the online magazine Slant pays contributors a $100 flat rate per month with an additional $5 for every 500 clicks their stories receive (Frampton). Since writers are so incentivized to encourage potential readers to click on their articles, they will often employ tactics such as the ‘information gap’–deliberately leaving key information out of a headline so that the reader must click on the link to satisfy their curiosity. The Olufemi case provides an example of a different tactic, sensationalism, in which stories are misrepresented in their headlines in order to shock or excite the reader.
Do we want to live in a world in which journalists intentionally obscure the facts or warp the truth in order to motivate more people to read their articles? Clickbait is often seen as a harmless annoyance, with fun being poked at classic headlines like ‘local mom discovers one weird trick for reducing belly fat–doctors hate her!’ Even those who perceive clickbait as a more serious problem might argue that it’s difficult to fault journalists for making efforts to encourage interest in their reporting. However, when this trend leads to a black student who encourages her university to teach more black authors being portrayed on the front page of a major newspaper as ‘forcing Cambridge to drop white authors,’ it’s clear that things have gone too far. Various codes of journalistic ethics exist, but no clear rules seem to be established regarding what kinds of headlines are acceptable in the age of clickbait. Perhaps news organizations need to come together to ensure that the transition to the age of digital journalism does not lead to a rise in deceptive reporting.
Frampton, Ben. “Clickbait: The changing face of online journalism.” BBC News. BBC, 14 Sept. 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-34213693. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.
Khomami, Nadia and Holly Watt. “Cambridge student accuses Telegraph of inciting hatred in books row.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 26 Oct 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/26/cambridge-student-accuses-telegraph-of-inciting-hatred-in-books-row. Accessed 26 Nov 2017.
@SamiraAhmedUK. “Something v concerning about way Telegraph put only this young woman’s pic & not more complex story on front page. As if to incite trolling.” Twitter, 25 Oct. 2017, 3:40 a.m., https://twitter.com/SamiraAhmedUK/status/923107071284928513.
“Student target of online abuse over paper’s fake news fail.” The Grio, 26 Oct. 2017, https://thegrio.com/2017/10/26/student-target-of-online-abuse-over-papers-fake-news-fail/. Accessed 26 Nov. 2017.