Has sensationalism gone too far?


OK, bugger all news here in this post, I just wanted to raise the issue of the dramatic rise in sensationalism that seems to be occurring in our industry. It seems like a case of trying to con conmen, which gets up peoples noses very quickly.

Is this what happens on the off-line world?

And more importantly how does one prevent it from happening in communities such as ours. Or is it just a case of we as an industry are at the forefront of link bait scamming that we forget and we are only accidently trying to hoodwink our well versed peers.


Competing for Attention

Since I'm a poster child for sensational titles it's not a big shock where I stand. As has been noted elsewhere there's a lot more sites covering search news and there's no shortage of straight up titles like

Google does _____________________
Yahoo offering __________________
MSN changes _____________________
ASK ... (I'm sure they are doing something)

Sure the titles are clearer to understand right off the bat, but since we're being honest, they're boring as hell, and as exciting as a 3 day old dead fish. Everyone's RSS reader is overwhelmed with that. If you want to stand out you've gotta get noticed, not everyone likes titles like Matt Cutts eats babies but it gets you to read, and I'd like to think the people here are smart enough to figure out Matt hasn't gone Hannibal Lechter on us. You don't score a date with a prom queen standing against the wall blending in. So if it's clever metaphors, silly similes, astounding alliteration, or current event and pop culture references and tie ins I'm all for bringing life to a subject that gets rather boring from time to time. That said I fully admit to being a card carrying member of generation X raised on MTV and Sesame Street and support the concept of infotainment.

My 2 drachmas, feel free to disagree.

Ukgimp, I think it is a

Ukgimp, I think it is a reflection of our societies as a whole: the mainstream media is going for cheap sensationalism while ignoring important news. After awhile people start thinking that it is normal to do that and our everyday conversations start turning into sensationalist drivel.

I also think boredom figures into it somehow.

Tighter editorial review before threads are published and a clear mission statement about what a community is about can help solve the problem.

Keeping the subject on top

Keeping the subject on top topic, but moving to the side ever so slightly.

El Reg are running a vote for the all time favourite headline.

The contenders are:

Virgin goes down on clients
Droopy hardware makes bankers flaccid
(1 August 2000)

Come on punk, spoil my day
Intel and AMD piss on each other's chips
(6 November 2000)

Woman gets mobile phone stuck up back orifice
Ring my ring game goes horribly wrong
(14 February 2001)

My Internet love is a corpse-hoarding granny
The dangers of online dating were never so clear
(22 February 2001)

Buy an Entrepreneur Wife on eBay
Wife auction goes titsup
(14 December 2001)

Man burns penis with laptop
Yes, yes, but what make?
(22 November 2002)

Oktoberfest nurse in fairground porn shoot outrage
'Sociological experiment' ends in the cells
(27 September 2005)

God fails to save idiot in lion enclosure
Dutch heron drowns bunny - World Cup omen?
(11 June 2006)

Welshman in 12 pint cider binge goat death ride
Kid-napping ends in tragedy
(10 August 2006)

Witchdoctor orders Serb to have sex with hedgehog
Sonic pin ball
(15 September 2006)

HP's CEO: 'I'm so sorry' that this got out
Dunny flushed
(22 September 2006)

Mobile snap nails dog sex man
Wife catches hubby with pit bull terrier
(23 October 2006)

Psychedelic toad licking dog in rehab
Owners tell of amphibian addiction hell
(30 October 2006)

Underpaid aliens bond over donkey sex
Collision mangles Bugatti, vapourises planet
(6 March 2007)

New Yorkers get an eyeful of beaver
It's been a while
(23 Feb 2007)

Yahoo! red-faced! over! curry! blog! ripoff!
Blames its out-saucer
(9 March 2007)

Rare flaw sighted in OpenBSD kernel
Thar she overflows
(15 March 2007)

Plastic surgeon sucks out belly dancer's buttock
£12,000 damages for half-arsed liposuction
(16 March 2007)

The SANS of Mars
Imaging the Red Planet at 2GB a time
(23 March 2007)

Image spam fattens junk mail
Does my bum look big in this?
(26 March 2007)

Not wanting to skew any results or anything but this page should help and please vote over there. You can learn alot by seeing how the El Reg demographic vote as to what will work when you target them on your sites.

CSRF anyone ?

Tx for the "help" Jason...


I think it's based on

I think it's based on expectation.

If you write a headline that builds my expectation about something being really important and interesting, and it turns out to be only mildly important in interesting, I'm a bit peeved.

If you write a striking headline which the article delivers on, I don't care , I'm happy, I got what I expected.

That's not to say that if I read a headline saying "Virgin goes down on clients" on some tech based site I'm expecting the sexual implication..... you know what I mean.

Seeing it a lot on Digg and stuff. "ZOMG best top 10 CSS tips EVER!!!!11" turns out to be how you can make links look like buttons and add hover effects.....
Or "OMG {insert company name here} are screwed, look what they did!", and you blatently know that people will have forgotten about whatever misdemeanour it was in a couple weeks and still be buying said companies products.

Raising The Noise Level

Sensationalism works. It also raises the overall noise level. Eventually, the noise level gets so high that the only way to cope is tune it out. All of it. When every headline reads like a carnival barker wrote it guess what happens? People start looking for some sanity. A bit of honesty in world filled with bullshit.

There's a difference between sensationalism and deceptive. I'm pretty unforgiving if the headline is simply a lie designed to get people to read the story. The Google aiding terrorists story comes to mind...

You may as well....

... stick a pair of tits half way down your article, and use all the other tabloid tricks - if you are going to use tabloid style headline writing.

Personally I don't like it, but think its an inevitable happening given that more and more people are now online. There has always been a market for the tabloids, and probably always will be, and if you are writing about entertainment, TV and light current affairs material then there is room for some tabloid style stuff; however writing for the SEO industry I think the tabloid style headlines are unnecessary and more likely to annoy the reader.

Write for your readership was always the maxim and there is no reason why this should change.

You may as well....

You may as well....

... stick a pair of tits half way down your article, and use all the other tabloid tricks - if you are going to use tabloid style headline writing.

Tabloid tricks are becoming more and more evident in online reporting. I done a quick little article last month on this very subject: Sensational Mood Photographs.

Tabloid style sensationalism has become massive since the Viral & Link Baiting momentum happenned, however, I agree 100% with Adrian tbh; if it delivers then great, if it doesn't then I close the tab/browser and move on, mentally making a note of the author/site and being more reluctant to go there again.

If you use too much of it then you/your site's reputation takes a knock.

Markets not Readers

>Write for your readership was always the maxim and there is no reason why this should change.

You write for the readers that make up a market segment. Some people like the BBC or the New York Times some people like Fox News and The Sun, there's not a large segment who will like both. A story that makes the New York Times people happy probably won't make The Sun readers happy and vice versa. And yes the search news space is now big enough that we have market segmentation.

a creative

headline doesn't have to be BS. It may take a bit more effort, but readers appreciate it. Those that depend on sensationalism lose credibility and readership over time.

>Is this what happens on the

>Is this what happens on the off-line world?

Yep, seems so. Funny, but over lunch we were just discussing the rise of TV-driven weather hysteria --hurricanes and tornadoes, in particular. Over the last 50 years, we long-time coastal residents have gone from the low end of having to literally watch for warning flags to be raised (you had about 24 hrs advance notice) to having current high-hype sensationalism to the point that if a butterfly stirs up a breeze in Africa we get hurricane projections. I swear, for the last couple of years the local TV stations were so geared up for promoting panic and catastrophe that they started showing hurricane "trailers" of PAST hurricanes at the beginning of the season.

You may be right graywolf

The search news space may be big enough to have market segmentation nowadays.

But you have to remember that it is still a very highly intelligent audience that is being addressed (in terms of society as a whole), and in general they will see through a sensational headline that isn't backed up by decent content.

Social Media Optimization

A lot of this has happened because of the rise in social media - and the need to compete with thousands of other headlines all submitted within the same time frame.

You have to think about end users and your repeat visitors, though. Sensational headlines can bring in traffic. Nothing but Sensational headlines will kill the user base that you were trying to grow.

Look at what happened around here - too many "Matt Cutt's Eats Babies" kind of titles ended up causing complaining in the threads, especially when coupled with a lack of real news coming out of anywhere.

Like anything else, it's a tool. It's great to use in Moderation, but some people take it too far at the potential expense of ruining it for everybody. Plenty of people have turned away from Digg and friends because it's just a bunch of the same. I'm not saying they don't drive traffic anymore, but a single tactic repeated over and over can only get you so far.

I read TW less because of

I read TW less because of it, so it's having the inverse effect, for me.

Not because there's necessarily fewer readworthy topics, but because there's more noise, FUD and paranoia in the mix.

I think there's just too many people trying to get noticed.


Follow Thru

>a sensational headline that isn't backed up by decent content

I agree if you're going to hook someone, you need the follow through, or else they feel cheated.

What happens when everyone

What happens when everyone writes sensational headlines, how do stand out from the crowd then?

See Above

>>When every headline reads like a carnival barker wrote it guess what happens? People start looking for some sanity. A bit of honesty in a world filled with bullshit.

oops, missed that line

oops, missed that line

Clever or Crap?

The problem is that some people just don't know the difference between clever and crap. Or teasing versus outright lying.

Triple X Domain Supporters Can't Get It Up is acceptable to me. As long as the story that follows explains why they are having difficulties getting approval for .xxx domain.

Angelina Jolie's Boob Slips would be acceptable if it were a story about Brad Pitt falling and busting his ass.

Google Aids Terrorism would be acceptable if there were proof that Google was actively sending money to terrorists. Not some convoluted bullshit about terrorists publishing Adsense ads.

Clever is fine. Prevarication is crap.

I think that this is now a

I think that this is now a major problem for TW.

Not so much when someone uses wit and intelligence to craft an attention grabbing title for a thread with real content. Thats fine.

The problem comes when someone uses the same technique to pull readers to pointless posts that either retract the original controversial headline, state the bleeding obvious or use thin content as a brand building exercise for the poster.

Sensationalist link bait is all well and good when uaed in our target market place - I am not much of an exponent myself, but I recognise the value of the technique and wouldn't have a pop at anyone doing it.

When it starts taking over Threadwatch posts it is just plain insulting to other members - like a conman trying to con other conmen with the three card trick.

importantly how does one prevent it from happening in communities such as ours.

By pointing it out and heaping ridicule on the exponents.

You know I hate convergence

Clever or Crap is a good way of describing it, in our community the borderline is fine.

However if we take the same criteria and throw them out to a wider community then the line between clever and crap moves (often by a country mile).

What happens when everyone

What happens when everyone writes sensational headlines, how do stand out from the crowd then?

That's when you write honest headlines and get credit for being trustworthy.

I feel sorry

I feel sorry for those who find that they have to write sensational headlines to try and make money. It only goes to show that they're not in touch with the real world.

Get in touch with your target audience - write headlines that grab them where they're at - and you won't have to write sensational bullshit ever again.

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