Why online headlines matter, a lot

Huffington Post South Africa engaged in an interesting but flawed experiment this week.They published a story with this headline: ‘Donald Trump Praises Jacob Zuma as “The Best, Ever”‘ . Very clickable it is, combining two big names in online traffic generation. However, what you get when you open the article is a discussion of fake news – a “we make you click and now we will teach you something” story.
Huff Post’s news editor Deshnee Subramany and columnist Rebecca Davis had an acrimonious debate on Twitter about the article, but otherwise it seems not to have generated much discussion, which is a pity because there’s an important issue highlighted in the exchange.

In the Twitter conversation, Davis asks: “But…but…are you claiming not to know that people often share articles based on only headlines??”, and Subramany replies “surely we can’t be held responsible for people who post without reading. Surely.”
She has a point: publishers can’t be responsible for the way their readers consume a publication. But she also misses the point. When a team of people make a newspaper, they make a physical product in which articles sit in context with other articles, and in which the headline is inextricably linked to the story. When a team makes an online website, their efforts will be seen in many different contexts. On Twitter as a reader leaps off a minibus taxi, rushes to work and then says to colleagues “Hey guys, Trump loves Zuma”. On a news aggregation site like Feedly, where the reader may have chosen only to see headlines. In a Facebook share from that former colleague who irritates you and so you don’t ever click on the headline. And so on.
Online journalists have to be constantly, powerfully aware that their offerings go everywhere, in multiple formats, and are getting only fragments of their reader’s attention. In that context, the Huff Post experiment was misguided to put it kindly. Aside from the ethical issues inherent in a genuine and respected news site deliberately falsifying a headline, they simply lost sight of a fundamental rule in online journalism: you can’t control the context in which your news is seen, so you had better make each and every element of it count.
*This was first published on my Facebook page.

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