by TheIdealCynic on April 25, 2017 - 6:12pm
The democratic system can only thrive so long as it has the correct mechanisms to perpetuate and disseminate political thought. Traditionally, the hidden powers that permit democracy have manifested through the relationship between politicians and journalists. However, the democratic promise is currently under attack as politicians become stagnated by the disastrous effects that sensationalized click bait headlines can have on their public perception. In President Barack Obama’s farewell speech, he addressed issues pertaining to the growing income inequality in America. His speech was followed by gruelling political headlines such as, “Obama Just Nailed Down His Legacy as a Cynical, Class-Warfare, Divider-in-Chief” (Libin). While these drama heavy headlines satisfy the reader’s craving for conflict, they can have damaging political ramifications by deterring discussion of certain topics as politicians fear becoming a target. Instances like this can be attributed to the emergence of click bait content, in which journalists report with the intent of attracting the reader’s attention, regardless of the social progress they may deter. Despite the effectiveness of click bait tactics, they can undermine democracy and contribute to the breakdown of social cohesion. Click bait headlines have succeeded in engaging a greater number of people to the political sphere, but at a cost of insight and progress. This tradeoff has prompted controversy over the extent to which the media has a moral obligation to serve society as informers, as opposed to entertainers. An examination of the merits of click bait tactics using John Mill’s Utilitarian ethical framework will demonstrate that responsible reporting holds greater moral weight when compared to entertaining click bait headlines.
Proponents of click bait reporting argue that captivating readers through dramatized headlines will result in an overall more politically engaged society. An article published by the New York Times concedes to their use of click bait headlines as a means of attracting readers, stating that “Clear, powerful words and a conversational tone make a big difference” (Bulik). However, the issue lies in those who present the strategy as a noble endeavour aimed at encouraging citizens to be involved in the political discussion. While click bait does increase the quantity of politically engaged individuals, it does not necessarily speak to the quality of that civic participation. According to the principle of utility, behaviour is moral so long as it brings the greatest quantity and quality of pleasure, in which pleasures are ranked by their utility, prioritizing intellectual pleasures above social, emotional and physical ones. While click bait headlines attract a greater quantity of viewers, they do not necessarily do so in a politically wholesome way. The sensationalized click bait headlines illicit emotional responses from the reader, appealing to readers on the basis of emotions of anger and fear rather than on a logical basis. A study depicting the role of Facebook political engagement in the 2008 election reveals that “the individuals with higher SAT math aptitudes tend to be engaged significantly less” (Carlisle and Patton 892). Ultimately, an increase in engagement with news does necessarily translate to a social progress without accounting for it’s intellectual quality. According to the utilitarian school of thought, click bait headlines do not promote a higher quality of political engagement within society, and therefore do not contain the moral legitimacy they claim to possess. In fact, articles that cater to the readers desire to be entertained rather than informed - such as those that stigmatized Obama’s commentary on issues of social inequality – do not promote a political dialogue, but instead cement existing ignorant opinions or oversimplify complex issues.
Defenders of click bait headlines celebrate the tactic as an effective communication tool, helping social issues gain momentum within the political and public spheres. It is an irrefutable fact that the market place for ideas is highly saturated, forcing journalists to compete for the readers attention. Proponents of this sensationalized strategy claim that click bait headlines are a necessary means of conveying information within the competitive climate. This perspective decorates click bait reporting as a necessary good within the media. While this argument speaks to the harsh realities of digital age competitive reporting, it is largely flawed in ignoring the media’s failure to protect their “public service responsibilities from excessive commercial imperatives” (Packard 29). The sensational bias of most click bait headlines is unproductive to the democratic process as it detracts from the truly important issues, instead prioritizing barometers of website traffic and advertising revenue. Indeed, click bait headlines often feed on the desire for radical news, using tactics of fear mongering, subsequently prioritizing the most entertaining headlines over the consequential, less juicy issues. The outcome is damaging to democracy. As public opinion fails to provide the most important issues with significant attention, politicians may focus on the wrong issues. Furthermore, this harmful filtration of news creates a dangerous cycle in which the radical politicians find their way to the press, strengthening the vicious cycle in which focus is placed on less important policy issues. The manifestation of this viscous cycle appears today in the form of Donald Trump. The Atlantic attributes Trump’s ability to provide click bait worthy material as playing a significant role in his rise to power: “Even before he was a Republican presidential candidate, Trump’s modern political career kicked off with unfounded, and repeatedly disproved, rumors about Barack Obama's birth certificate” (Thompson). Ultimately, journalists have a moral obligation to ensure that their behaviour has productive consequences on democratic activity, rather than contribute to its breakdown from a first class political system to a comedic debacle of outrageousness.
Several advocates of click bait reporting claim that the sensationalized way in which news is conveyed can have a beneficial impact within the political sphere, increasing sentiments of party unity. Indeed, many click bait headlines dramatize the rivalry between republican and democratic party’s, fostering a sense of nationalism and partisan pride. According to this perspective, click bait reporting tactics can be a progressive force within the political arena as partisan cooperation translates into legislative progress. While this perspective may hold truth, it neglects the fact that increased unity among politicians within one political party often results in a further divide between two competing political parties. While republican’s and democrat’s are not intended to share similar views, they must comprise to ensure the proper functioning of the government as a whole. The propagation of angry and divisive political rhetoric not only threatens the daily affairs of government, but can create a rift among voters and threaten national unity. Moreover, click bait journalist’s desire to attract readers has shown itself to have no bounds, painting a picture of divisiveness within a party itself. The Atlantic shows its unrelenting desire to attract viewers as it promotes political division rather than comprise within the Republican Party in a recent headline: “Will Conservative Budget Hawks Cave to Trump?” (Coppins) . This language suggests a climate in which compromise in indicative of weakness or surrender as it describes the Republican Party’s predicament with words like “…battle lines…” (Coppins), “…GOP Civil War…” (Coppins), and “…conservative resistance…” (Coppins). In addition, politicians who are concerned about their public perception and fear appearing weak by ‘caving’ may further hinder democratic productivity by refusing compromise. Click bait reporting can be a greater obstacle than catalyst to the democratic process and should therefore lack moral basis.
The media landscape has drastically transformed with the arrival of the digital age. Despite the opportunity for a greater flow of information, reporting tactics like click bait headlines with their sensationalized content threaten the democratic system. An application of Mill’s harm principle shows that click bait reporting ought not have moral legitimacy as it plays a greater role in deterring democratic processes than promoting progress. The detrimental ramifications of click bait headlines has begun to shape the modern American political landscape, which can today be described as perpetuating ignorance, a failure to achieve political progress, and an unprecedented national divide.
Bulik, Mark. "Which Headlines Attract Most Readers?" The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 June 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.
Carlisle, Patton. “Is Social Media Changing How We Understand Political Engagement? An n Analysis of Facebook and the 2008 Presidential Election.” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 66, No.4, 2013, pp. 883-895
Coppins, McKay. "Will Conservative Budget Hawks Cave to Trump?" The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 28 Feb. 2017. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.
Kevin. "Kevin Libin: Obama just nailed down his legacy as a cynical, class-warfare divider-in-chief." Financial Post. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.
Packard. "Media Activism from Above and Below: Lessons from the 1940s American Reform Movement." Journal of Information Policy, Vol.5, 2015, pp. 109-128
Thompson, Derek. "The Clickbait Presidency." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 06 Mar. 2017. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.