Editorial: Clickbait a scourge of digital news era

In the past week, a conscious, deliberate attempt to discredit South African media was made through an attack on the Huffington Post. In the clamour that followed the revelation that our colleagues there had published a blog riddled with inaccuracies by a blogger who does not in fact exist, questions were raised about the journalistic rigour that is being exercised in digital spaces. Questions were also asked about confirmation bias in newsrooms – and about the abilities of their editors.

Besides the valid scrutiny of ideology and media ethics, the incident has also exposed systemic weaknesses in commercially driven digital journalism. Editorial teams are expected to do more and do it better, but with less. We are ourselves soldiering on under these constraints.

Added to changing media consumption habits, we are now also facing pressures from tech giants such as Google and Facebook, which, with a slight change in their algorithms, decimate website traffic and help themselves to the lion’s share of digital advertising revenue.

In response, some news publishers have resorted to publishing content that entices readers to click on their links. Clickbait is a problem that threatens the credibility of digital journalism. And it is not new.

But it is imperative that we are more honest about the nature of journalism itself. The obsession with scale is not limited to digital news publishers.

This week, an obscure group called the Friends of Hlaudi invited members of the media (previously decried as “deplorable”) to a press briefing. The invitation arrived with a handy list of issues that Hlaudi Motsoeneng, sometime SABC chief operating officer, would address. All related to the sorry state of the public broadcaster.

We turned up. And we listened. The SABC carried it live. And every major news publisher in the country relayed back to its audiences the craziness that is Hlaudi.

The thinking goes like this: when he speaks, he is sure to say something bizarre and it always makes for entertaining reading.

The Friends of Hlaudi movement certainly did not coerce us to turn up to attend his briefing on Wednesday. But we have made a Faustian bargain – we need more people to consume our content and Hlaudi, being Hlaudi, will sell more newspapers and make more page impressions.

And it’s not as if the Hlaudi situation is unique. Early on, even before Donald Trump was the United States presidential frontrunner, American TV news was giving him far more attention than the other candidates, and far more than he deserved. The coverage ultimately helped to create Trump, the president of the US. It was a direct result of an obsession with audience numbers.

Television executives who don’t deliver the ratings are ousted. Similarly, editors who are not able to deliver the requisite number of page views to justify investments in digital media are also under pressure.

There is a lot more to be said about the Huffington Post incident, but one particular question remains: As The Daily Vox asked, would this incident have inspired the same outrage if the content of the blog had not offended certain sensibilities? And would editors be inclined to publish such blogs if not under pressure to deliver scale?

If, indeed, we are so concerned about guarding the imperatives of journalism, as some have demonstrated this week, then we must acknowledge that the current commercial pressures on digital journalism are untenable. We must acknowledge, as well, that in our drive for the big numbers to match the worth of our journalism, we will create many more Trumps – and perhaps a Hlaudi version too.

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