Amicus Curaie: Online Media and the Omnipresent Clickbait Issue

By Georgia Osmond

It is universally acknowledged that the media plays a crucial role in many Western democracies. Known as the ‘fourth estate’, its role is to hold government, the courts and other public bodies to account, and provide the public with access to information they may not normally be able to access. Media publishers are given certain privileges that enable them to carry out their role.  This includes access to the courts and exemption from legal obligations that other private citizens are subject to. Alongside the rights the media are given, there are responsibilities they must uphold. One of the greatest expectations placed on the media is that they will disseminate news that is accurate, truthful, and in the public interest.

In New Zealand, this is reflected in the codes of conduct of our two largest media companies, Fairfax Media and NZME. Certain obligations on journalists and publishers include:

  • not allowing personal interests to influence their role,
  • being honest and fair throughout the news gathering, reporting and presenting process,
  • Ensuring that headlines and captions accurately represent content.

The Press Council, whom all media publications answer to, have these and similar expectations as their core principles.

However, the rise of social media has contributed to the changing face of news publications. This has become apparent in the increasing number of clickbait articles and the tabloidization of once-reputable newspapers. Clickbait is essentially the publication of an article with a catchy headline intended to draw the reader in, while the article itself has no real substance. Tabloidization, seen most commonly in gossip magazines, focuses on gossip and sensationalised information.

A recent example of one type of clickbait article is Deborah Hill Cone’s article on Clarke Gayford in the New Zealand Herald. The article had no substance, and appeared to be criticising Gayford on his role as ‘First Man’ based on minimal evidence. Phrases like ‘hipster salty sea dog’ and ‘the political equivalent of manspreading’ attempt to build accusations off of opinions. The article later drew criticism and satire from fellow media sources.

Whether it be misleading headlines about eating breakfast leading to 80kg weightloss, or any story about the Kardashian-Jenner family, this is not the first time the New Zealand Herald has published articles that could be deemed clickbait. It would not be such a big issue, if it did not come from one of New Zealand’s most accessed news publications.

This issue is not confined to New Zealand, but is seen globally. Tabloidization has been a frequent part of the UK media for years, with publications like the Daily Mirror and The Sun in circulation. The dominance of online news publication websites like BuzzFeed contributes to the rise in clickbait articles, and though these publications attempt to publish informative news, clickbait articles are key to their popularity. Response from one public figure due to constant distortion of tweets highlights the frequency at which it occurs.

 

The right to free speech and opinion enables these articles to be written and published, and this should be encouraged in a democratic country like New Zealand.  The issue is that articles like Hill Cone’s are presented as ‘Breaking News’ and given significance they do not deserve. The continual publishing of clickbait articles and tabloid stories undermines the credibility of publications like the New Zealand Herald. We live in a world where ‘fake’ or ‘alternate’ news misleads voters, freedom of the press is viewed as a threat to the state, and the media in some countries is under strict government control. Journalists should proceed with caution when publishing clickbait stories. They have an important role to play in the democratic processes of our country. If the public begin to lose faith in our publications, this could be problematic for the fourth estate’s role as a watchdog of the state.

The most recent study on public perceptions of the media was done in 2012, and was requested by the Law Commission. 750 New Zealanders participated, and of those questioned, 25% used newspaper websites, and 15% saw these as the most reliable form of news. Considering the sudden dominance of the internet and social media in the intervening years, it would hardly be surprising if reliance on newspaper websites had decreased. This could perhaps be an area the Law Commission could review again.

After Hill Cone’s article was released, Stuff coincidentally published an article discussing their obligation as journalists and their adherence to the standards set. If websites and newspapers like the New Zealand Herald want to maintain their credibility and reputation as one of New Zealand’s leading news publishers, perhaps it is time that they – and columnists like Hill Cone – remind themselves of their obligations to the New Zealand public.

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Featured image: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2016/10/8/gp-tabloids/