“She wrecked on the Beltway, but what followed was worse.”
This headline, teasing a story about a woman who suffered a brutal death on the Beltway in Prince George’s County, doesn’t come from Upworthy, BuzzFeed or Gawker, all known for click-bait headlines. Instead this one, which goes against all notions of traditional newspaper headlines, comes from one of our industry standard-bearers: The Washington Post.
Journalists are often critical of this trend, pioneered by viral masters Upworthy and BuzzFeed, to tease stories with a “curiosity gap” in the headline. According to The Atlantic, “the idea is both to share just enough that readers know what they’re clicking and to withhold just enough to compel the click.”
Here’s an example from Upworthy: “What Happens To Some Kids When They Go To Work In This Famous Industry Is Awful.” Headlines like this one are meticulously, artfully designed. Of course you want to click, because you need to know: What’s the industry? What happens to the kids? The intrigue is the reason these stories have become so insanely popular.
Upworthy says it writes at least 25 headlines for each post and tests them “rigorously.” But company officials said in a blog post the headlines only grab the initial click. Rather, it’s the content quality that drives a massive number of shares on social media.
The Post’s Beltway story headline reads: “She wrecked on the Beltway, but what followed was worse.” This is entirely true – the woman did wreck on the beltway. And what happened next was worse – she was run over by a car, and then many others. So The Washington Post didn’t lie; the headline did explain, in a sense, what happened. But there’s something that feels wrong about teasing a serious, brutal story with such a casual, conversational headline.
Molly Gannon, a spokeswoman at the Post, said she doesn’t characterize that headline as a “teaser,” and pointed out that the web headline and the print headline, which ran in The Washington Post Magazine, were “nearly the same in tone.”
According to Gannon, both headlines read:
“Print: Fatal Indifference: It was late. She wrecked. What happened next sealed the tragedy
Web: She wrecked on the Beltway, but what followed was worse”
It makes sense why the editors would go with these types of headlines. It’s not enough for news outlets to produce meaningful, newsworthy content – they must also get people to actually read it. If a click-bait, teaser headline ultimately results in more people reading an interesting, well-reported story, perhaps this new format could be good for the future of journalism.
But it may take time for news organizations to figure out how to use them effectively, in ways that don’t cross the line into offending readers. Sometimes, people perceive efforts to tease a story (either through headlines or tweets) as reflecting poor taste.
CNN, for example, faced intense criticism recently after posting a couple of Upworthy-style tweets linking to sensitive stories:
What state has highest rate of rape in the country? It may surprise you. http://t.co/uYm3NqoLU5
— CNN (@CNN) February 4, 2014
— CNN (@CNN) February 4, 2014
14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you. http://t.co/5ZFqHFrviw
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) January 23, 2014
The Washington Post also faced backlash from its followers for this tweet; one user said the Post was unethical in using this tactic to get users to click. (Gannon, at the Post, said to her knowledge, the paper didn’t receive any complaints about the tweet, which she said used language pulled from the lede of the story it was linking to.)
He pinned her to the floor and molested her, then he asked a question that’s still seared on her mind http://t.co/LUwgi0YLTn
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) November 25, 2013
These are just bad. More cringe-worthy than Upworthy’s, they trivialize depressing, sensitive stories. Even Upworthy’s editor-at-large, Adam Mordecai, tweeted out criticism:
FYI @CNN Remember when I said editorial judgement is required when deciding when to use curiosity gap? Not for child murder OR rape. STOP.
— Adam Mordecai (@advodude) February 4, 2014
CNN, which didn’t respond to emails seeking comment, spoke to criticisms by tweeting:
— CNN (@CNN) February 4, 2014
CNN Social Media Editor Lila King responded further on Twitter that the news outlet meant “no offense” with its rape tweet, but also didn’t say the news organization would stop pushing out those kinds of tweets.
“We’ll keep calling attention to where it’s needed, yeah,” she tweeted. “The point is that people should read the story.”
It’s possible to write clever, attention-grabbing headlines without being insensitive or misleading. The Washington Post’s Wonkblog provides a good starting point. Headlines like “Obamacare’s sign-up period is ending. Here’s how Enroll America is getting ready,” effectively tease well-researched, dense policy stories. Wonkblog even established an alternative website, Know More, that repackaged these complex stories with clever headlines like “Why the suburbs are depressing and awful, in two maps” and shorter formats, designed to go viral.
Know More launched on Oct. 7 last year. According to a Washington Post memo published on Buzzfeed, by “the third week of October — the third week of its existence — KnowMore was the No.1 most-read blog on all of washingtonpost.com. It is consistently in the top five.”
These traffic-grabbing headlines aren’t going away. Instead, journalism finds itself in yet another transitional period. As Nieman Journalism Lab director Joshua Benton explains, “there will be awkwardness and missteps along the way. Those emotional Upworthy headlines rub a lot of people the wrong way — even in the moment they click on them. But take them as signs that online content is evolving in new ways, ways that traditional outlets will be able to learn from and that will lead to a healthier future for journalism.”
With each success (Know More) and failure (CNN’s tweets), the media industry will learn something new and move forward. The end result will be more people reading good journalism because of headlines worth clicking on – and content worth discovering.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more comments from The Washington Post.