We’re All Going to Die! (The Worst News Article of the Week)

I don’t want to be alarmist, but clickbait is killing America.

CBS News Once Led the Pack

In the 1970s, CBS News held a prominent position in the media landscape. CBS News’ reputation in the 1970s was built on trusted anchors, quality reporting and a commitment to journalistic integrity.

CBS was the first network to provide regular radio news broadcasts in the late 1920s. This legacy continued into the 1970s, with groundbreaking programs like 60 Minutes and 48 Hours.

In the 1970s, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was often referred to as the “most trusted man in America.” His authoritative and unbiased reporting during significant events, such as the Apollo moon landing and the Watergate scandal, solidified CBS News’ credibility. Correspondents like Eric Sevareid provided insightful analysis and factual reporting. Their commitment to accuracy and depth set CBS apart.

Monsters in the Sky

This week, we saw a web-headline from CBS News that reported “Giant venomous flying spiders with 4-inch legs heading to New York area as they spread across East Coast, experts say”, accompanied by a terrifying photograph.

It is very unusual for a spider to fly. Imagine these gigantic monsters dropping from the sky! 

For those of us of a certain age, it conjures images from Arachnophobia, that great scary venomous spider movie of the early 90s.

Computer rendering of venomous spider.

Not till the second to last paragraph do we learn that “they do not pose a danger to humans. Th[e] venom [is] for the critters that get caught up in their webs, including butterflies, wasps and cockroaches.”

The Inverted Pyramid

As any first-year journalism student knows, this structure violates the first rule of news reporting, which is to prioritize the most important details first, and follow this with supporting details. 

Known as the inverted pyramid approach, this rule has been around since the dawn of print journalism. 

If the president is shot dead in Dallas, the first paragraph should tell you that. It should not read, “A shocking event in Dallas today will take your breath away and change your life forever. Read on to learn more!”

So what has changed? 

Clickbait Rules the World

A news organization like CBS no longer makes most of its money from TV advertisements; instead, it needs to rely on clickbait, little enticing thumbnails that you see at the corner of your computer screen when you are trying to get something else done, which encourage you to click on a link. 

When you click, the website makes money; it makes more money the longer you stay on it. More clicks mean more site visitors, which translates to higher ad rates. Readers who on average spend more time on a website lead to even higher ad rates. 

So the clickbait websites have an incentive to keep you reading till the end, which means no more inverted pyramid. They simply cannot afford to let you read the first paragraph and go home.

Sometimes that means a great payoff in the final paragraph, but in many cases, it means slyly misleading you till the end. 

We say “misleading” rather than lying, because CBS News does not lie at all. Right there in the clickbait headline, they write that the spiders about to infest New York are “venomous,” and if you are a New Yorker you believe, wrongly but understandably, that these spiders might kill you. 

All spiders are venomous, of course, but in your panic that does not occur to you. 

So if the CBS headline had stated, accurately, “Harmless New Spider Species Coming to New York,” the company would have made less money from the article. 

This is how a lot of web journalism stays afloat, but it is heartbreaking to see Uncle Walter Cronkite’s news organization playing this game. 

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