On Tiger Woods, Auto Journalism, and Clickbait
Golf legend Tiger Woods was involved in a nasty one-car accident yesterday. He survived, but he suffered serious injuries, and his golf career might be in jeopardy.
Not long after my social feeds lit up with the news, I came across a tweet in which it was clear that he was driving a Genesis GV80. One that bore the logo of a recent golf tourney on its door. Woods had apparently been loaned the car by Genesis.
Car Twitter and certain auto journalists soon zoomed in on this detail. Fox Business wrote a post on the incident, filing it under its autos section and making mention of the GV80’s safety features.
I saw chatter on Facebook and Twitter about how maybe the GV80 saved Woods’ life, or how Genesis PR might have been initially worried that Tiger would die driving one of its products before being able to possibly be happy that its vehicle may have kept the outcome from being worse.
That was one journalist’s speculation, as posted to Facebook. Genesis’ actual statement was about neutral as could be, though it of course expressed sympathy and hopes for a speedy recovery.
I don’t bring this up to castigate journalists for speculating, in forums outside of their official media platforms, about certain aspects of the crash. I, too, was curious about what Tiger was driving, and I remain curious about how the crash happened and if the safety features of the GV80 – some of which are available on many vehicles across the price spectrum – prevented an even worse outcome. It’s natural to think about these things, and those of us who take an interest in cars will find our minds wandering there.
All that said, a quick Google shows that a fair amount of mainstream non-automotive publications, as well as several well-known car sites, made mention of the GV80’s involvement in the accident.
It makes sense for the mainstream pubs to make mention – it’s a key detail, even if we later learn that the crash would’ve occurred no matter what car Tiger was driving and/or if we learn that the basic safety features that even the cheapest econoboxes are equipped with would’ve saved his life.
What felt shady, at least to me and at least initially, was that automotive publications were using the GV80 as a news hook to give them a reason to scoop clicks on a story that would normally be outside their purview.
“Clickbait”, in other words.
Upon further reflection, however, I am not sure these blogs were wrong to cover the story. After all, an argument can be made that there’s news value in a car-centric blog telling its car-enthusiast audience what car was involved in the day’s biggest news story. And while “clickbait” is used as a pejorative term, there really is nothing wrong with a for-profit news site maximizing clicks in order to make money, provided it’s done ethically/the story is factually accurate.
Even non-profit news sites need clicks. Or subscriptions. Or newsstand purchases (yes, newsstands still exist, or at least they did the last time I was in NYC, waiting for the subway). Or in the case of broadcast, ratings.
Not to mention that journalists don’t just write stories for only ourselves to read. We write them for an audience. If we were just writing to ourselves, it would be called a diary.
This is why “clickbait”, as a term, drives me nuts. Every piece of journalism, from the hardest-hitting investigative report to the consumer-informing news story about last nights’ key City Hall vote to the fluffiest celebrity profile, is meant to be read. And not just for “clicks,” but to inform and/or entertain the reader.
And as Tim Marchman wrote, if everything is meant to be clicked, isn’t it all “clickbait”? I’m paraphrasing, but it’s a good point. Even the Oxford dictionary defines it this way: “(on the internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.”
Again, everything we in the media write is meant to get you to read it. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
This, of course, means that when readers shout “clickbait!”, they’re often using a lazy criticism that is not well thought through.
By now, you’re screaming at me. You’re thinking that of course you understand that journalists want readers to consume the content. You’re going to tell me that when you say “clickbait” you either mean true “fake news” – hoax news created to push a political agenda and/or profit – or you mean a situation where the headline is hyperbolic, and the story you clicked on, while factually accurate, doesn’t add enough value to be worth your click or the time you took to read it.
That’s the issue, though. No one disputes that there is some junk content out there, meant to simply generate clicks without adding much value. Although most digital journalists are learning, or should’ve learned by now, that quality content does better than junk. Readers stay on the page longer, which is good for advertisers; readers come back to the site more often; and there’s some evidence that Google punishes junk content by down-ranking it in search.
The issue isn’t that there’s junk content out there. The issue is that “clickbait” has become so overused that it no longer has meaning. One man’s well-written story is another’s “clickbait.”
A while back, a colleague posted on Facebook accusing a major newspaper of writing “clickbait” when it published a humorous piece about seeing a certain movie while stoned because he thought the paper should avoid the topic of weed. I read the piece and found it light-hearted and hilarious, even though I don’t partake in the whacky tobaccky. One man’s legit feature story, another man’s “clickbait.”
Some of you have accused me of “clickbait” when I’ve written opinion pieces that you disagreed with. But I didn’t write those pieces in a cynical attempt to farm clicks. Yes, I knew they’d likely get a lot of clicks. But my primary motivation was that I had a sincerely held belief/opinion, and a platform, and I wanted to express that opinion on said platform. And if some of were persuaded to agree with me, great.
(Some of you have also accused me of somehow turning TTAC into a site that pushes an agenda, but I assure you that when I write an op-ed, I am speaking only for myself, not TTAC as an institution. But that’s a topic for another day.)
Some of you will accuse me of clickbait just for this writing this post, or using Tiger’s name in the headline. Never mind that that is unavoidable in a piece about Tiger’s crash being used for clickbait.
We might not be able to agree on what clickbait is, but I can tell you what it isn’t. It’s not an op-ed you disagree with or a factually-accurate story that paints a company/political party/athlete/sports team/policy/whatever you support in an unflattering light. It’s not even a hyperbolic headline atop a story that does deliver what it promises, even if you’re let down. You knew, when you clicked, that you would of course believe what those seven monkeys jumping in the tree did.
This brings us out of the journalism 101 class and back to Tiger Woods and the world of automotive blogging. It’s not clickbait, necessarily, for an automotive Web site to put up a short post pointing out the GV80 was the car involved. But it feels like a stretch of a news peg.
That, however, is a separate argument. Maybe these outlets are stretching too far outside their purview in a bid for clicks in such a way that it leads to junk content, or maybe there’s actual value for the readership. I lean toward the latter, but a case could be made either way.
The point is, even if you agree with the former, that doesn’t make those stories clickbait. You’d probably say they are – after all, if you think there’s no good journalistic reason for a car blog to produce a post about the make of car in the crash, you’d say the blog is simply fishing for clicks – but that’s the point. If others can make a reasonable case that it’s newsworthy, the argument isn’t over whether it’s clickbait or not. The argument is over whether it is or isn’t newsworthy.
Something that isn’t newsworthy isn’t necessarily clickbait. This is why we need a new word for content that is objectively junk.
As for TTAC, we haven’t done a post on the car involved, as of yet anyway, because you’ve already heard elsewhere that it was a GV80. It’s not about whether it was within our purview or not – we just don’t have much to add to the conversation right now.
Maybe we’ll learn more about a specific safety feature on the GV80 that helped Tiger, or a specific failure that contributed to the crash. Right now, all we know is that the GV80 was the car he was driving, that it’s a luxury SUV laden with safety and driver-aid features, and that some of those features are available on most cars. Some, of course, are mandated by the government to be on all new cars.
This Automotive News story does, indeed, suggest that the SUV’s crashworthiness could’ve have saved the golf legend’s life.
I still don’t know if it was the “right” journalistic decision for car blogs to write posts singling out the car Tiger was wheeling when he wrecked. Maybe there’s news value, maybe there isn’t, and it’s just an SEO play.
Even in that latter case, even if an editor straight-up said “we should do a post on the GV80 being involved just to get some clicks”, it’s not “clickbait” in the pejorative sense. In the literal sense, sure. But not in the “junk” sense. A short, fact-based post that doesn’t break new news may make you roll your eyes, but it’s not necessarily junk.
That’s your TTAC journalism lesson for the day. Carry on, and hopefully, Woods recovers just fine, whether he ever swings a club in anger again or not.
[Image: Tony Bowler/Shutterstock.com]
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Perhaps it was a case of distracted driving. Were any hookers injured in the crash?
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