On Bias, Clickbait, and the Future of Journalism
Insight and Advice from Staffers at The Washington Post
The news is of prime importance right now—and not just because of politics, though of course politics is a major part of it. Our growing awareness of and interest in media—and how it’s made, focused, and (sometimes) fooled—has created a kind of meta-media (just look at this very piece you are reading), where comment piles on top of comment and investigative journalism can sometimes struggle to find purchase. So I at least find myself more and more fascinated with the inner workings of newspapers and the daily lives of journalists.
Which is why I was excited to see that last week, seven reporters (and self-identified Reddit-lurkers) from The Washington Post logged on to do an AMA about clickbait, inherent bias, and the future of journalism, among other things. For the record, those reporters are: social media editor Gene Park, Internet culture reporter Abby Ohlheiser, technology reporter Brian Fung, Wonkblog reporter Chris Ingraham, pop culture reporter Elahe Izadi, product designer J.J. Alcantara, and Jessica Stahl, editor of social, search and communities. I’ve collected a few highlights from their wide-ranging conversation below—and check out the full AMA for more.
On good headlines and that nasty thing called clickbait:
Headlines are a tricky thing, because you’re competing for someone’s attention. It has to be interesting enough that they want to click on it, but also accurately communicate what they’re going to get when they do. We really try to stick to the premise that a headline is a promise and the story has to deliver on that promise. So if the headline says “and you won’t believe what happened next!” what happened next better be unbelievable. Clickbait is when a headline is tricking you into clicking something that turns out to be not what the headline led you to believe. If the headline is getting you excited to read a story that’s genuinely exciting or interesting, that headline is doing its job. (Jessica Stahl)
Even if we’re going to talk on a practical “business at the end of the day” sense, clickbait headlines would work against us. Facebook, for example, has been updating its newsfeed “algorithm” to keep “clickbait” headlines off your feed. In fact FB just announced an update yesterday. Doing clickbait headlines would actively work against us. . . . If the headlines from a site are consistently lying to you, why would you click again? It’s insulting to the reader’s intelligence, and runs counter to our mission to inform. (Gene Park)
The journalism industry has done itself a huge disservice, [in my opinion], in holding up “unbiased objectivity” as the gold standard of reporting. There has never been a single “unbiased” article ever written. Reporters are human too.
Readers by and large understand this. They see our bias express itself in a million different ways, from the stories we decide to take on to the people we decide to talk to, to the questions we pose to them.
This disconnect, between the bias inherent in any human activity and the media’s claims to “objectivity” is one reason, I think, why trust in the media is so low today.
Good reporters, in my view, aren’t free of bias, but they fight their biases. They learn their blind spots and try to compensate for them. They strive for honesty, rather than an unattainable objectivity.
It’s never a perfect process, of course. But I do wish news outlets were perhaps a little more forthcoming about this with their readers and themselves. (Chris Ingraham)
Really forward-thinking media scholars and journalists will freely concede that true objectivity is a myth—which in some ways, puts them on the same side as their bias-alleging critics!—but that as long as you’re transparent with your bias, that actually helps the reader decipher the story. Other reporters say they strive not for objectivity per se, but to describe the truth as best as it can be perceived. (I believe that’s written into the Post‘s original principles.) Then you’ve got some folks who argue that balance is the ideal, though that idea has come under criticism in recent years as this notion of “false equivalence” has gained ground—the classic example being putting a climate denier next to a climate scientist in the same article. I’m a lot closer to the first of these, but you’ll get lots of different answers from different people. (Brian Fung)
Naturally you will face pressure from outside forces (flacks/spokespeople)—whether you’re covering Congress or a celebrity—to put a particular spin on a story. And it’s integral to a reporter’s job to be aware of this and not be swayed at all. What I try to keep in mind (as a way to orient myself) is trying to be as close as I can to a mirror that reflects the realities of things. Like Chris said, this involves being aware of your own blind spots and biases, which we all have as humans. A few principles that are key to objective reporting: let the facts be your grounding and your guide, and approaching stories with a measure of humility (you have to be open to being wrong in your assumptions and comfortable with asking questions that may seem dumb). (Elahe Izadi)
On what to do when labeled “fake news”:
Honestly, the best response is typically just to keep our heads down and continue to do our jobs. And sometimes, waiting produces its own rewards. Like when the president goes on Twitter and winds up removing all doubt about our reporting. (Brian Fung)
On how to make it as a young journalist:
Carve out a niche for yourself that sets you apart from your colleagues. For folks in local/regional markets, one hugely underserved area right now is data reporting—there’s a massive trove of data on cities and counties (from sources like the Census) that’s often overlooked by the papers covering those areas.
The Census alone can provide trend data on everything from demographics to economics to businesses in your area. Learn what these trends look like and work them into your existing stories.
Even better, get handy with some common charting tools so that rather writing 1,000 words to describe 30 years of demographic data, convey it in a single charts and save your words for the more meaty, analytical stuff.
If you really want to stand out, dig more deeply into the visualization side of things (mapping, etc), or learn how to do some basic statistical analyses with software like R to be able to draw more complex conclusions: what’s the relationship between age and education in your area? What are the crime trends in the fastest-growing areas of your city? Where do the richest people live, and why?
This is just one path, of course, but these skills have been incredibly useful for me and it seems that they remain in high demand. (Chris Ingraham)
Write for your school newspaper. Find the town’s community paper and pitch stories for them. The best thing you can do is get experience in reporting and writing, and developing a portfolio of published work. . . . One other thing I’d suggest: don’t be shy about reaching out to professional journalists, especially in your area, to grab coffee and pick their brains. Journalists, in my experience, can be very open to mentoring. (Elahe Izadi)
I got a bit of a late start (I didn’t write in high school) but getting that experience as early as possible is key. Also: read, read, read. Read a news article for its content—then read it again to dissect it and figure out how the writer structured it, how they presented the information, what kind of language they used, how it sounds when it rolls off the tongue. All that stuff makes a difference to the end reader! (Brian Fung)
Write or produce journalism is the best way to [become a journalist]. Are you looking for training? Do you have training? You don’t need to major in journalism to do it. You just need to learn things like ethics, language style, a good strong portfolio of work examples.
These days it’s easier more than ever to engage in “acts of journalism.” But it’s always good to find yourself a mentor who can guide you.
Also, join a professional journalism organization. The Online News Association is a good place to start. (Gene Park)
I was on reddit well before I joined the Post. And oddly enough, the skills I developed on Reddit—identifying something really interesting, and framing it in a way that makes other people want to read it too — have been incredibly useful for story development as a journalist.
Generally speaking, [when looking for story ideas] I look for things that make me stop and say “wow” or “huh” or “holy shit!” I figure if I’m surprised by something, others will be too. Sometimes that’s the case, other times it’s not. (Chris Ingraham)
On how to keep Americans interested in quality journalism:
Investigative journalism is important, but it’s by no means the only good or important kind. There are two other ways to think about this that are worth considering.
One is local journalism. People trust local news in a way that they don’t with national outlets. We shouldn’t squander that trust. Local news needs support, and to earn it, it needs to tackle hard subjects, particularly explaining how national-level policies are affecting people in the local community.
Second, traditional beat reporting (keeping a record of things that happen on the day-to-day) is also important. Over time, readers can develop a competency and expertise in a given subject from reading a beat reporter’s work. And not only will readers become conversant in that subject, helping him or her become an informed, engaged citizen, but also they’ll gain a sense for when something interrupts the flow of what’s considered “normal.”
When people think of classic journalism, they think of big, honking scoops like Watergate. Things that are dramatic and have lots of impact all at once. But ordinary reporting is just as important. (Brian Fung)
On favorite recent stories:
I’ve written quite a bit about civil asset forfeiture, and the circumstances make my jaw hit the floor every. single. time.
One of the more brazen was the case of a family in Michigan. The wife was a registered medical marijuana grower under the state’s medical marijuana law. After setting up her operation, she reached out to the local drug task force to ensure that everything was compliant with the law.
Instead of responding, the task force kicked her door down, with guns drawn, detaining her four young children and her 56-year-old mother. They ransacked her house, taking everything from cash to tvs to bicycles to a lawnmower to the woman’s vibrator (yes, really).
She was eventually cleared of all charges, nearly two years after the fact. But last I checked in with her, in 2016, they were still trying to get all their stuff back from the cops. (Chris Ingraham)
This is the story I wish I could be a good enough writer to have done: “Telling JJ: She’s 10. She has HIV. And she’s about to learn the truth.” It’s a story about a young girl who was born with HIV and leads up to the moment when her parents and doctors have decided it’s time for her to know. The whole thing is absolutely heartbreaking and has stuck with me since the first time I read it. Soon after this published the reporter, editor and photographer shared a bit about how the story came together, and the dedication and sensitivity it takes to report something like this and do it right is astonishing. (Jessica Stahl)
Fellow Style reporter Ben Terris (He’s great! Look him up!) got a dream assignment and naturally came back with a fantastic story. He spent time on the set of “Veep,” including with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and producers, to get a look at the challenge of making political satire in this current climate. (He opens with an anecdote of filming on set as cast and crew kept track of election returns) (Elahe Izadi)