…which brings me quite neatly to the point of this post.
Headlines must be sensational to fulfill their purpose.
175 years have passed since Edgar Allan Poe penned the above passage in his sequel to ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue‘. And yet his words still ring as true in the 21st Century as they did in the 19th. In view of what’s been happening with political news in the past eighteen months, maybe even more so. To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s ask a simple question:
What is the primary focus of the mainstream news media?
Hint: This hasn’t changed since 1842
- Is it to inform society impartially about political and social events and developments?
- Might it be the conveyance of facts vital to the public’s prosperous future or continuous health?
- Perhaps it’s to provide an impartial historical record for future generations?
The correct answer is, of course: “None of the Above“
The primary focus of the news media is, and always has been, to sell newspapers. In our technological age that focus is rapidly swinging around to getting visitors onto a news outlet’s ad-supported website, but the overriding principle is still exactly the same as it was back in 1842 and before: To make MONEY!
And there’s just not that much money to be made, merely reporting the truth. The headlines would simply be too plain to entice Joe Public into clicking a link or buying a paper. A nice, juicy, scandalous headline, on the other hand, is far more likely to result in both clicks and paper sales, even if the actual article that follows ends up debunking its own title.
CBS provides us with a perfect example of this, in an article from February 14th: “Russian spy ship patrolling off U.S. East Coast” proclaims the headline, as though the presence of such a vessel constituted a fresh development in the ongoing Trump/Russia media saga. The article later goes on to state “The presence of foreign vessels and aircraft near U.S. territory is nothing new.” continuing to cite a string of similar incidents from previous years and decades. But of course by that point anyone still reading has already served their purpose for the publisher.
Now let’s take a look at political “journalism” during the past eighteen months.
Your personal leanings aside, stop and think for a moment how many times you’ve read permutations of the following headlines in the run-up to the US presidential elections last November?
“This will sink [insert name]’s candidacy!”
“[insert name] is a [insert adjective]!”
“[insert name] on the verge of pulling out of race!”
“[insert charge] lawsuit spells doom for [insert name]!”
“Indictment imminent for [insert name]!”
“[insert name] suffers from advanced Parkinson’s*!”
Which immediately brings me to my next question: “After clicking on such a headline, how many visitors ultimately proceed to read the entire article, and how many simply read the headline and the introductory paragraph before moving on to something else?“
“They don’t make quotes like they used to.
Attention spans are too short nowadays.”
–Sasch Mayer 
According to data compiled by traffic analysis firm, Chartbeat, only about 25% of visitors will ever even make it anywhere near the end of a given article. The rest? They bounce elsewhere, click on the ads, go on ill-informed comment rants, or simply tweet about whatever it is they just didn’t finish reading. Overall, the verdict is, 75% of online readers blunder off half-cocked, without ever being in possession of all the facts provided by the article they just clicked on.
That would explain the wave of shock and outrage I ran into on February 14th, about Trump’s Russian buddies having the temerity to send a spy ship into US waters… The same folks probably clicked on my headline, but by now they’re on Twitter, telling the world Poe was a serial killer, or that everything’s just fine in Sweden… or something.
Nor are the web’s many half-cocked readers ever likely to read one of the myriad retractions, because when the media gets it wrong, retractions are traditionally printed on Page 27, right below the results of the Assville Celery-Growing Contest… in tiny print.
We live in the Age of the Soundbyte
Not to be confused with the Soundbite [a brief extract from a recorded interview], a Soundbyte is the smallest possible unit of public attention span. That period is getting pretty short nowadays…
Edgar Allan Poe called it, 175 years ago: “The latter end is only pursued when it seems coincident with the former.“
Poe is as right today as he was nearly two centuries back. The Truth is only reported when it feeds the media’s lust for sensationalism. It would serve us well to remember that simple fact.
Otherwise, we are controlled by “Fake News.”
* To be fair, they only ever said that about Hillary Clinton.