Friday, August 3, 2012

Why I Don't Want You To Click This Headline

I want people to read the pieces I publish online; the more readers I reach, the better. My message reaches a broader audience, and in the long-run, I even earn more money as I gain visibility for RateTea indirectly. So why do I not want people to click on the headline for this blog post?

You're already here, so the headline already got your attention and drew you in. First I have a confession to make: The headline was not fully truthful. On some level, I wanted you to click it, but on another level I did not. Why not? The answer lies in how I feel about sensationalism. I included a less-than-truthful headline, a form of exaggeration, in order to draw in readers.

The part of me that did not want you to click the headline did not want you to because I do not want people to be swayed by sensationalistic headlines. In my ideal world, I would like people to be immune to these sorts of headlines. Below, I explain why I think this would make the world a better place, and how you can help to advance this goal.

What is sensationalism?

Wikipedia has a rather spotty and incomplete article on sensationalism, which, although the article as a whole could use some improvement, I think hits the nail on the head with its initial definition:

Sensationalism is a type of editorial bias in mass media in which events and topics in news stories and pieces are over-hyped to increase viewership or readership numbers.

This definition cites a page about sensationalism on the website of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), a non-profit organization dedicated to addressing media bias and censorship.

Sensationalism causes problems in the tea world:

I want to visit some topics that I have heard people in the tea community complain about frequently:

  • Inaccurate public impression of science - My recent post about the tea and prostate cancer headline is an example of how even very mild sensationalism can have a powerfully negative impact on public perception of scientific knowledge.
  • Tea and weight loss fads - Tea, particularly green tea and oolong tea, and to some degree Pu-erh and white tea as well, have become associated in American society with weight loss fads. There are numerous negative impacts to this association, from people being put off from green tea because they try bad green tea sold as a weight-loss product, to negative body image issues promoted by marketing aimed at women. And most importantly, this whole approach takes away from people focusing on the quality and taste of their tea, and enjoying tea and the process of drinking it. And lastly, sites promoting tea as a weight loss product are not particularly truthful; for a more truthful approach I recommend reading Gingko's post on the slimming effect of tea.
  • Myths and falsehoods circulating about tea - A lot of the myths about tea surround the caffeine content of tea, such as the myth that white tea is lowest in caffeine among teas. A lot of other myths pertain to unsubstantiated health claims, which can range from the mundane to the absurd. Fortunately, there are a lot of people out there committed to ending these myths, including such people as Michael J. Coffee who runs Tea Geek, or Brandon of Wrong Fu Cha, who also administers WikiCha and is one of the numerous contributors to TeaDrunk, another great place to get solid info that breaks through myths and misconceptions. I also appreciate the casual skepticism expressed by bloggers like Lahikmajoe, or Nicole in her post Health Benefits Schmealth Benefits. And it's also worth noting the ATB (Association of Tea Bloggers) Criteria, point 6, also get at this issue; another thing I love about the ATB.
What can you do?

I think there are numerous things you can do to curb sensationalism in news, especially in how you read news online, and how you participate in social media and various online communities. Some of my recommendations:
  • Slow down - Sensationalism thrives on speed. Sensationalism flourishes and sensationalistic headlines are rewarded in an environment where people act on snap judgments, rather than thinking deeply, which leads into the next points.
  • Read deeply - Do not just skim pieces. Read them in their entirety and take time to think about them. Does this seem like more work? This leads into my next point.
  • Read less - Be more selective of what you read. As you read more deeply, you may reach a point like I did, where I realized that an overwhelming majority of what I was reading was remarkably low-quality, in that it communicated little new information, or was hastily thrown together, or it cited no sources, or that it was presenting opinions or mere assertions as fact or objective truth. These realizations are a good thing; they will help you to cut out whole media outlets, blogs, and websites. You will also get a better idea of what sorts of topics you wish to read on which sites. You may subscribe to a blog that posts almost daily, like this one, but you may find that only a small portion of the posts interest you enough to actually read them. This is a good thing! When you have less to read, you will be able to read more deeply.
  • Think carefully before sharing - Never share or re-share a post without reading it. Put some thought into what pieces you decide to share or re-share on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, social bookmarking sites, or through linking to from your blog or website. Think about what effect you are having by sharing a work or webpage. Is the work truthful? What effect will it have on the world for you to share it?
Sensationalism in the media only thrives when we fuel it. If we ignore it, and instead focus on high-quality, thoughtful journalism, scholarship, blogs, and other media, the sensationalists will just spin their wheels and eventually run out of steam.


  1. Nice post! I really like your solutions to counter sensationalism in the media, especially your section on being more selective of what we read and what we share. I think this follows what we were talking about on Wednesday, namely that people support sensationalism and untruthfulness in media by continuing to read and redistribute articles that encourage those trends. I completely agree that readers have the ability to overcome this type of media by only focusing on high-quality, truthful, and thoughtful sources as you suggested.

    Do you believe that this same technique can be used to counter negative media as well? It seems to me that if we stopped focusing on negative coverage there would be less of a demand. Personally, since there are always negative happenings in the world, I would like to see a reform of the way that news is covered, creating a system that discusses potentially negative topics in a positive light and leaving people feeling more empowered and rather than discouraged about our world.

    While I realize that media is such a big topic, because it is so influential, I hope that we can discuss it more in future meeting of Why This Way.

    1. Yes, I definitely think that this same technique can be applied to counter negativity in the media.

      I think it's tricky to pin down exactly what "negativity" is...I definitely have an idea of it, and I think we have a good idea of it in Why This Way, but I think that within society at large, there's no clear societal consensus about what it means for something to be "negative" or to constitute "negativity", and this complicates things. This is a subject I've been getting at a lot on this blog, for example, in my older post on constructive criticism vs. diatribes and rants.

      I think people sometimes confuse negativity with exposing problems, which I don't think is the same thing. I think it's possible to write articles or posts or other material about a problem or an event generally agreed as being negative, but write the article in a positive way, a way that has an eye towards being empowering.

      One thing that bothers me about most press and media nowadays is that it does not seem to have solid values behind it. Even the basic values of objectivity and truthfulness seem to have been abandoned, but I sometimes think that objectively presenting the basic facts is not enough for me. For example, we've been discussing the recent batman shooter, and the coverage of that event, and I think many of us are bothered by the way the event has been covered, in that people writing the articles do not necessarily think about the effect that reading the article will have in the world.

      Ideally, I'd like people writing and editing articles to think about the effect that their article has on the world, and write them so as to have as positive an effect as possible. I think that's directly related to the question of positive vs. negative coverage too. Often when there's an article about a murder or act of violence, I think, what is the point of me reading this? What do I get out of this article? What does my community get out of me reading this article? How does me reading this article make the world a better place? If it doesn't, then I don't want to read it. If there's not some constructive actionable point, or some empowering insight I gain from reading the article, then I don't want to read it. And I want people to start writing articles from this angle, the angle of being empowering and having a positive effect on people, even when they cover events like shootings that everyone agrees are a bad thing.

  2. Is the title of this post really sensationalistic? I guess I'm a little confused about what exactly sensationalism is. This is the first time I've read about it. It's hard for me to establish whether or not the point you're illustrating makes sense, because it's one of those paradoxes: The fact that the title is dishonest makes it so that on some level, you don't want people to click it, but the very idea that that's true on some level makes it somewhat truthful, yet the truthfulness of it invalidates the point of it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

    But anyway, does sensationalism have anything to do with the idea of portraying something as taboo when it's really not? Because that seems to be more along the lines of the motivation you're using, the idea that saying, "We don't want people to know about this" makes people curious. I guess it makes sense on some level, that that would qualify, because I sometimes see ads that are like "this is the secret to weight loss," and the idea that it's a "secret" makes it more special somehow. Actually, this is often how I see things like Oolong tea being marketed.

    1. your comment I think you explained the answer to your own question! Basically, the way I would define sensationalism is any less-than-fully-truthful change in anything about how you cover news (whether headline, article, images, anything), which you do in order to get more views. So, if you're making modifications to the headline, to the text, to the images, specifically to get more views / readers...that alone is not sensationalism. It becomes sensationalism when you move away from truthfulness in order to get more views. And that's why I said that my headline in this post was sensationalistic: because it is less than fully truthful, and designed to get people's attention.

      I do see those sorts of headlines "We don't want people to know about this" as sensationalistic. Like, there are all these ads for stuff all over the internet "Plastic surgeons HATE discovers weird trick to improve your skin" or some junk like that. The same format is actually repeated with different ads.

      I think mild sensationalism in headlines can sometimes be, maybe some examples you give about portraying something as taboo. But I think that even there they can sometimes be harmful. I know that from my perspective, I just get tired of them so I see them as an annoyance, something I don't like, even if they're not overtly harmful. Things like "The secret to weight loss" not only don't draw me in, they annoy me, and they make me think ahead of time, without even reading the article, "This is likely to contain fad weight loss hype or other information that is untrue, unscientific, and not particularly constructive." -- And then, even without clicking the article, I often get a negative impression of the publication including or linking to that article. On the internet, it often looks like outright spam.

      So there are other reasons to shy away from these types of sensationalism!