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Is it ever OK to turn tragedy into clickbait?

Let’s establish some guidelines for when it’s OK—and not OK—to use emotions as a marketing tool.


Aja Romano

Internet Culture

Posted on Feb 4, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 7:21 pm CDT

Your headlines on Facebook are becoming a lot less informative and a lot more emotional. You might’ve spotted the use of certain eye-catching, interest-sparking phrases: The results may surprise you! You won’t believe what happened next!

You’ve probably clicked on a few of them. Millions of people have. And every news organization and viral blog has caught on.

Upworthy’s original headline style has been remarkably successful. It’s sparked many attempts to imitate its formula: Viral Nova, GodVine, and Distractify, to name a few. But while the clones are geared more toward cute animals and viral content—a hand painted like an elephant, for example—Upworthy’s goal has always been to get more people engaged in issues that matter. Without fail, the stories are relentlessly positive. Anger-inducing, but uplifting.*

Recently, CNN has come under fire for attempts to “Upworthy” its headlines on Twitter—for stories that readers feel deserve a much more serious treatment: rape and child murder.

The problem, of course, is that some stories are objectively awful enough that they shouldn’t need to promise an emotional high to find readers. Some days live in infamy, not in viral Facebook shares. Upworthy is a pop-culture website predicated on giving its readers emotional highs; CNN, as one of our most esteemed media outlets, does not have that luxury. But appeals to emotion ought to be a privilege, rather than a concern, of journalism.

Readers have gotten the Upworthy treatment twice in two weeks from its Twitter accounts:

14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you.

— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) January 23, 2014

What state has highest rate of rape in the country? It may surprise you.

— CNN (@CNN) February 4, 2014

Neither of these stories promise uplifting moments. Neither of these stories are ones that you’ll rush to share with your friends. But both of these stories are important. That’s why CNN’s social media director is actually defending the choice to use the Upworthy tags:

@AntDeRosa We’ll keep calling attention where it’s needed, yeah. The point is that people should read the story.

— Lila King (@lilacina) February 4, 2014

People should read that story, yes. But the media creates narratives around stories that affect how we read them. Occasionally, the narrative can undermine the stories themselves. 

Today’s article looks at the patterns and social trends that have made Alaska the most dangerous state in the U.S. for sexual assault. By giving it the clickbait treatment, CNN is actually distracting the reader from the article’s importance and obscuring its significance by making it read like just another trend piece rather than a brilliant and necessary piece of investigative journalism.

Like its predecessor, the Alaska article isn’t easy to read. As King noted, it’s important to get readers on the page. How you get readers to read, however, becomes a question of integrity.

Our social media landscape is lawless. There are no established, industry-standard rules for how stories should be be promoted. Social media editors largely trust their gut and piggyback on effective trends. Since this trend obviously isn’t going away, let’s establish some guidelines for when it’s OK—and not OK—to use emotions as a marketing tool:

1) Don’t make someone else’s personal pain about your emotional experience.

Humans do pretty crappy things to other humans. The truth is, we aren’t entitled to feel good about the news all the time—especially not when the news is asking us to relate to human tragedy.

2) The more important the news is, the more straightforward you should be in telling it.

This holds true for the headline as well as the actual reporting. In terms of the news, if the most straightforward headlines aren’t enough to sell the most important news of the day, then maybe it’s because you aren’t actually covering what’s really important.

3) Stories can be worthy without being upworthy.

What CNN seems to be forgetting is that it’s not impossible to get these stories the views they deserve without the Upworthy treatment. Take the sheer number of debates you’ve read this week about Dylan Farrow. No one wants to have that conversation. But it’s being had because we recognize that sometimes we need to put on our adult pants and have adult conversations about the serious stuff. 

4) Don’t forget what really matters.

Online media thrive on heartwarming ephemera—these stories go viral and then they’re forgotten. The purpose of an Upworthy-style headline is to excite the reader, get them curious enough to click. But if you’re more focused on getting clicks than communicating the news in honest ways to the people who trust you to deliver it, then you’ve not only let down your readers, but you’ve done your job badly.

Journalists know well what it’s like to have a great story ruined by a bad or misleading headline. And sometimes it’s a group effort to push every story before the eyes of appreciative readers.

But journalism should never bill itself as sideshow entertainment. CNN may never be the website you’ll read to be surprised by “what one woman did next.” But Upworthy also won’t be the site you turn to when there’s real news happening. Real life is not always viral or worthy of an upvote. 

*Update: Adam Mordecai, Upworthy’s founding curator and editor at large, writes to clarify that his platform is not “only positive … many of our stories go to very dark places.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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*First Published: Feb 4, 2014, 5:57 pm CST