Tuesday 15 January 2019

Clickbait, Misdirection and the Media: a Challenge to Schools

Headlines have not often been listed as an educational hazard, nor as a reason that school curricula need to adapt, but a recent example demonstrates education need to respond to new ways of consuming news, and the way media organisations are responding. 

On 13 January, the Sunday Times published an article based on an interview with Julian Thomas, the Master of Wellington College, in which he reflected on the reasons for his decision to stand down from his role at the end of the year, and his view of the health of the sector. The article contained some reasonable criticisms of the independent school sector in the past, and some strands of positive comment on the way the sector has developed away from exclusivism, rapid fee increases and a tendency to self-reference in the last decade or so. 

However, the piece was run under the headline Greedy public schools deserve a caningsays Head of Wellington College. The headline was, in all probability, chosen by an editor or sub-editor - not by the author of the article. It actively misled the reader as to what the content of the story was – so much so that the online version has subsequently been changed: ‘deserve’ has become ‘deserved’. 

One of my colleagues observed that this sort of headline – let’s call it as it is: clickbait – was once the preserve of tabloid or gossip press, and it’s a fairly new development to see it in a news outlet with the reputation of The Times (of London). This perhaps reflects the increasingly desperate scramble for readers that faces all journalism, even at the top end of the quality range. 

My concern, however, is different. Educators have, for some time, pointed out to the young that their consumption of news from Facebook (or other social media sites) intellectually impoverishes them by placing them inside an echo chamber of their own opinions, and the apps’ algorithms. We have encouraged students to consume news instead from more balanced curators of news – the BBC, Times, FT, Guardian etc. What do we do when these channels of information about the world given in to the temptation to run ‘echo-chamber’ clickbait headlines too, especially when busy lives incline more and more people to read little more than the headlines, trusting them to be an accurate summary of the news story? 

Headlines like the example above borrow from the play book of the populist politician. By placing an idea into the mind of the reader in a headline, the editor ensures that a large proportion of those who go on to read the whole story will retain the misleading impression of the headline. And, by placing misleading headlines as clickbait, news organisations lend credence to the populist’s go-to tactic when they hear something they disagree with - “fake news!” 

The industrialisation of the newspaper was a feature of the nineteenth century. At no point since then has it been more difficult for young people to gather a balanced picture of the world. Educators have a new and difficult role to play in society – teaching the young to curate their own newsfeeds in a way which steers between the populists of politics and the populists of the press. 

If we don’t, the difficulties news organisations have in monetising news will impoverish us intellectually and, over time, deprive society of balanced and nuanced views. That is not a happy prospect.