As someone who studied journalism and went on to work as a journalist for a little while, and who spent a lot of time writing headlines, I feel the need to illuminate a few things. Headlines are not news. They are clickbait. They were clickbait long before clicking was a thing. They are eyecatching, barely informative tidbits designed to get you to read the rest of the story. The best headline I ever wrote, which won me an actual award, was … Student Council Out For Blood. Doesn’t tell you much does it? Makes you want to know what the story had to say, I bet. That’s what headlines are created to do. It is their function. They are meant to attract your attention. Once again, repeat after me, all headlines are clickbait and always have been, throughout all of journalistic history. They are not news.
And here’s something you should know about the stories under the headlines … 75% or more of every story is mostly unnecessary fluff and cruft. Once upon a time, the first paragraph of a story would contain all the most important information. Who, what, when, where, why, and how. The rest of the story descended through layers of further information to flesh that out, and the lower any particular paragraph of information appeared in a story, the less important it was. Why, you ask? Long ago in the dark ages, those of us who worked in the layout and paste up room had to make stories fit into spaces. We’d trim from the bottom up until it fit. If doing so made the story incomprehensible or otherwise less readable, then it had to be rewritten or was simply left out. Being a journalist meant you wrote every paragraph as though it might the closing to your story, and you were always ready to do some light editing if that wasn’t going to work. My how times have changed, and quite frankly, I believe that most of the problems journalists and journalism itself face today have been caused by the lack of any necessity to be concise and precisely accurate in a limited space.
It’s not just the change to Google News that’s grinding my gears today. That was just the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I’ve been irritated and sometimes enraged by the state of journalism generally and American journalism particularly for quite a long while. Without respectable news sources and journalists who are willing to be truth tellers rather than ratings seekers, we are … to put it bluntly … doomed. Why do you think one of the first things a dictator does is take over all sources of information? Because that’s where the power resides. That power can be used for good or evil, and I’m not seeing a great many news outlets using it for good these days.
News today feels like propaganda, because in essence, that is what it has become. It’s market tested, light on facts and heavy on opinion, and the vast majority of it is designed to persuade rather than inform. And in its mad glee to appear “unbiased”, modern journalism tells both sides of stories that only have one actual factual side. Such is the crazy world we now live in. Most days, I feel as though it has all gone so far over the brink that journalism as we know it now cannot be redeemed, and there is no coming back from this “scoop first, find out facts later” insanity. I hold out hope that somewhere out there are young people wanting to be journalists … old school, tell it like it is, hell-be-damned journalists, and not just using words and “access” to gain fame, fortune, glory, and power. I guess time will tell. I’ll be watching and waiting for a new generation of truth tellers to emerge, but I suspect I’ll be watching and waiting for quite a while.