ClickBait Isn’t All Evil: Here’s Why

Is clickbait nothing but evil profit-driven blitheness, or does short-form journalism ever serve a more intellectual purpose — or at the very least, call attention to a pressing and often tragic civil rights issue?

Collage by Julie Mastrine

Julie Mastrine

This is the question raised by Sarah Kendzior’s recent Politico piece, “The Day We Pretended to Care About Ukraine.” She explores the listicle — commonly regarded by critics as nothing but drivel, serving only to drum up the number of eyeballs/clicks needed to boost media outlets’ advertising revenue — and how it has been applied to complex geopolitical issues, namely the recent anti-government protests and political unrest plaguing Ukraine.

Kendzior points to articles that have appeared on sites like Mashable, BuzzFeed and Business Insider with titles like “Ukraine Crisis: 12 Apocalyptic Pictures After Nation’s Deadliest Day.” These articles feature series of photos from the protests that are “high in resolution, low on explanation,” Kendzior writes. She dubs this particular genre of clickbait the “apocalypsticle.”

Kendzior says we’re addicted to disaster porn — essentially, the only reason we care to click on these pieces about political unrest is not because we’re concerned about the country’s civil rights abuses or the citizens’ struggles against the state, but simply because we get a sick, guilty pleasure from looking at photos that remind us of a movie.

“What does it mean for Ukrainians?” Kendzior asks. “Few apocalypsticle authors pose the question, because the only relevant question is what it means for them: traffic. Ask not what Buzzfeed can do for Ukrainians, but what dying Ukrainians can do for Buzzfeed.”

Let’s hold up for a minute. When did publishing photos of a major geopolitical event become 100% self-serving? After all, who is to say what anyone’s motivations are for consuming (or for that matter, publishing) a certain type of content? Let’s not forget media, and our consumption of it, is never black and white but entirely nuanced.

Emily Bell

Screenshot of Kendzior’s Politico piece

Sure, profit motive informs the actions of these media outlets — at least in part — but this is true of nearly every organization or company existing today. If there is a demand for this type of slimmer content —  if it is being consumed (and it is, at high rates) — someone will deliver, whether that be BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post or any other outlet you wish would just stick to longform articles. But to assume people only click on a piece because they get a sick pleasure from its content is condescending and nearsighted, and ignores the nuances of our personal interests, education levels, time constraints, and desire to engage with complex issues.

Kendzior’s piece raises important questions, but if she really wants to examine why these images have gotten so much attention in the past few weeks, she needs to consider that being able to research a complex political issue in-depth is a luxury often only the privileged can afford — it requires resources and time, not to mention the desire to delve into emotional work and the critical thinking that accompanies it.

So when BuzzFeed posts photos of violence happening in the real world, are they enabling those who are unknowing of the details, or engaging them? And is the audience somehow apathetic for clicking, for wanting to know, to see, to perhaps learn? I don’t think so.

Kendzior points to a few pieces she claims had research flaws or shoddy, lazy reporting — BuzzFeed misspelled Ukrainian, and an “alleged journalist” illustrated a piece on Flint, Michigan with a photo of Ramla, Israel. Kendzior feels these reporting missteps are indicative of a lazy media landscape that values eyeballs and “porn” over hard research and in-depth reporting.

The hard stuff is out there — Kendzior steps right in front of this contradiction by pointing it out in the second-to-last paragraph. Her examples then are ill-conceived and do not uphold the conclusion that we’re all lazy, sleazy scumbags who just want to get off from looking at shit blowing up.

Demonization of viral content like BuzzFeed’s listicles also ignores the reality of how media operates.

It’s crucial to note here that BuzzFeed also posts in-depth analyses alongside its slimmer content. When I worked for a newspaper, we often published pieces I disagreed with, or pieces I thought could have been handled better — written or perhaps researched with more care. Sometimes I disagreed with the conclusions at which the article arrived, or thought the piece left out a key detail, or hoped a certain fact had been brought up in the lede but instead was noted eight paragraphs down. So did I decry the entire news outlet for the misgivings of one piece created by one reporter?

No.

Media outlets are made up of individuals. Uniformity in quality of reporting is a pipe dream. This doesn’t excuse shoddy reporting or a lack of attention to facts, but it explains why — shocker — the Internet is going to include articles that are not the robust, in-depth, detailed academic pieces that a former academic researcher (i.e. Kendzior herself) would like to see.

I think Emily Bell at The Guardian put it best:

Media that aims to be accessible, that seeks to engage and inform people outside elites, has a valuable mission. Engagement with Ukrainian politics might begin and end with a “disaster porn” slideshow nine times out of 10, but what of the tenth individual who goes on to read more? For younger audiences or those disengaged from the mainstream media, one thing is sure: that the exploration of an alien topic will very rarely start with a 5,000-word article in Foreign Policy.

In short, readers who are uneducated on a particular subject often find a visual or short explanation of an issue to be a gateway into more detailed exploration and understanding. I personally find this true for my own education — I often find visuals like infographics or charts are easier to understand when I’m first delving into an issue I find to be particularly complex (this infographic on bitcoin comes to mind).

So yes, “clickbait” often serves profit margins. But it is far more nuanced than many give it credit for. Media consciousness does not begin and end with the listicle, or with so-called clickbait. It starts with the individual — the reporter, the editor, the photographer, the reader and their desire to take their knowledge a step further, beyond that deceptive HuffPo headline or “apocalyptic” slideshow.

It’s naive to assume those who engage with clickbait are only seeking out porn. Many are simply looking for a pathway to a broader education — and they don’t need to be demonized for the choices they make to get there.

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