I’m reading David Wong’s Cracked.com post on “5 Ways To Spot a B.S. Political Headline In Under 10 Seconds” and laughing out loud.
But I’m also a little worried.
I’m a recovering print journalist and generally love my new life as an online journalist, but I’ll admit the link-baiting headlines all of us are guilty of writing every now and again still make me squeamish. Wong is looking at how the mainstream media writes headlines for political stories where it is committing journalism: in other words, stories where the reporter and editor try to turn a dog-bites-man story into a man-bites-dog story.
But the more I read, the more I realize a lot of his b.s. detection rules could apply to most any of us writing online, regardless of the topic. The headlines in question are almost always the product of lazy research, an effort to generate a story or a buzz where none (should) exist.
And this isn’t just coming from some old-school, finger-wagging print reporter: it also comes from a reader. Sure, the types of headlines below may have fooled me once or twice or even dozens of times, but after awhile I (and lots of other readers) have become immune to these once tried-and-true tricks of generating click-throughs.
With all that said, these are the types of headlines I try to avoid writing, and the types of headlines on stories I almost always kick myself for being tricked into reading:
Headlines That End In A Question Mark
As Wong explained to On The Media Host Bob Garfield in an interview last week, headlines posed as a question are usually found on top of a “news story so questionable the publication literally felt the need to mark it as such.”
Good journalism is about getting answers for readers. These headlines, particularly when they’re on blog posts, allow the writer to discuss a topic without digging into it and finding an answer. The he-said, she-said objective nature of print journalism all but killed it, and readers are going to be conditioned to spot these headlines as the tell on the online version of these types of stories.
And even if the writer does go far enough to answer the question, there’s another problem: it’s most likely a rhetorical question. Readers won’t read something if they believe (rightly or wrongly) they already know the answer. And online time is precious: a rhetorical question, which almost never has a fact, wastes readers’ time.
Headlines That Start With the Word Why
I’m sorry, Mr. Recently-Graduated English Major, but I don’t trust you to sum up “why Microsoft’s Bing partnership with Facebook will be the death of Google” or “why Facebook’s IPO pricing is so clever” on your blog. Unless you have a crystal ball, you’re just not that smart.
The truth is, “why” headlines are a ploy to make you think someone has found the last word on an often highly-nuanced subject. They usually try to position themselves as the last word on a subject that would most likely be impossible to sum up in a single blog post. They almost never have a definitive answer, and I find they’re most often used by bloggers who are sprouting off their own brilliant thoughts and ideas
The “[Insert Industry, Technology, Cultural Touchstone Here] Is Dead” Headline
Things that have been declared dead in the past few years:
- The Web
- The Press Release
- And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that blogging is also, apparently, dead.
See where this going? As Jonathan Potts noted on Spin This last month, “the best way to start cheap conversation is to declare something dead — an industry, a technology, a hallowed way of doing business.
The “X Is The New Y” Headline
This headline has been so overused that it has become a cliche. But I note it because A) it was used enough to even become a cliche in the first place and B) its status as a cliche hasn’t stopped people from using it. And using it. And using it.
It barely worked five years ago when some blogger boldly declared “Facebook Is The New MySpace,” but now its used to describe everything from Bing to Tim Tebow’s dog.
Headlines About Someone Tweeting Something
I may be fighting a losing battle on this one, and the old rule of “if you’re mother tells you something, check your sources” may not be feasible online, where “beating” someone on a story is measured in seconds instead of hours or days. And I’ll be the first to admit I troll Twitter hoping to see stories as they’re developing.
My real problem is when the story is so thin that the headline is about the person tweeting something. It means the writer didn’t bother to do any reporting, offer the reader any context or try to dig any deeper than what I could have figured out for myself by simply going to Twitter. The writer is trying to draw traffic, not help me as a reader better understand what the story is and why it’s important.
EDITOR’S NOTE: David gave a great presentation at BlogWorld New York, titled “Reporting for Bloggers,” which, as David says “gives bloggers tips for quickly reporting stories and delivering readers factual information that will allow them to avoid writing shoddy, whorish headlines.” His session is available on the Virtual Ticket, which is on sale until June 23, 2012.