Check, groan, repeat. That's my routine whenever I'm looking at the news. As I'm writing this, CNN's home page stories include “Hollywood's best bromances” and “Teen gets a tattoo of WHAT?” I don't care about a tattooed teen, but CNN knows I have to know more, even if I don't want to. BuzzFeed, home of the heartwarming dog gif, draws in many millennials with political news like this headliner: “A Blogger Discovered The Selfie She Took At The Hair Salon Was Turned Into A Viral Anti-Obamacare Meme.” The link-bait for articles on my Facebook feed is usually worse. “This Dude Is Really Good at Tinder” is begging for a click. These attention traps are as absurd as they are effective. I have to click.
Today's viral content can be summarized as startling stories packaged into clickable headlines. Though I often feel fed up with the deteriorating quality of the news that I come across, I also know that I perpetuate terrible content as much as I complain about it. I'll click on a story about tattooed teens instead of Ukraine—and for the same reason, I'll read a political report on a selfie instead of a political report on, well, politics. I'm a sucker for link-bait—I want my news to be entertaining. When I come across something that's juicily absurd, sometimes I can't help but share it. But if I, along with most people, feel this way, then news outlets are pressured to publish what's clickable over what's important. That's how we end up with poor quality—yet viral—content in the first place.
This phenomenon isn't restricted to content on high-volume sites like CNN or BuzzFeed. Our campus is affected, too. Let's analyze what's been big in campus news so far in 2014. Off the top of my head, I can think of three things: Kappa Alpha Theta members dressing as Mexicans, the removal of a pro-Palestine banner, and the announcement of Planned Parenthood's president as Barnard's commencement speaker. These events have each led to major social media fallout, a flurry of op-eds, and people questioning why we weren't talking more about these topics or why we're still talking about them. Of course these incidents need to be discussed through public news channels—but do they really qualify as campus emergencies, or do they turn into such due to readers' responses to these articles? Comment wars, numerous op-eds, and on-campus gatherings to address the incident—drawing additional news coverage—are all forces that sensationalize the original content. All of these factors are consumer-driven, and they all lead to the topic going viral.
Readers are often fed up with certain news being viral, but ironically, they may be the ones responsible for fueling sensationalization. Pointing to producers of the news as the root of the problem (i.e. the argument that producers put out the stories in the first place, so they're responsible for the bad content) doesn't adequately explain the cycle of sensationalism, although it's true that news producers feel financial and reputational pressure to put out viral content. From a writer's perspective, what's the point of writing a story if people don't read it? And from a publisher's perspective, what's the point of putting out a story if the page views are too low to generate substantial income from online ads? Publishers are well aware of the need to create content that will bring in page views, and at the end of the day that means delivering content that readers will likely read. If readers demonstrate that they click on gimmicky titles and sensationalized news over serious and more important content, publishers have that data on hand to inform how and what they will present in the future.
Content consumers, myself included, can complain about the downfall of the quality of news and the gimmicks involved in capturing our attention. But complaining won't make the news any better—especially when, by clicking on viral content traps and engaging in comment wars, consumers encourage publishers to produce more of the same. It's supply and demand. Producers supply what consumers want, and if consumers want news held to a higher standard, they have to stop engaging with gimmicky links or comment wars on topics they'd rather hear less about. Consumers waiting for the news to change need to understand that it might not until they themselves change.
If consumers really don't want their news to be a form of entertainment, they need to pull their attention away from “The One Life-Changing Thing You Need To Read Today” and start the hunt for quality content. Social media shouldn't be reserved just for scandals or the most shocking content. Readers should search for and share what they think is important, well-written, and interesting, and that might not be the shocking article that everyone else seems to be sharing. Maybe there's nothing particularly sensational about important content that deserves to be shared. But by sharing it, consumers exercise the power to tell producers what they want, and thereby shape the type of content they will see in the future.
Sarina Bhandari is a Columbia College senior majoring in sociology. Balancing with Bhandari usually runs alternate Tuesdays.
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