by Elina Shatkin
Aside from major screw-ups like not fact-checking stories before they’re published (cough, cough Rolling Stone; cough, cough New York mag), this was the year I couldn’t stop noticing how certain annoying journalism trends seemed to reach critical mass. Full stop. (< That one’s a bonus.)
10.We Need To Talk About
No, we don’t. We don’t need to talk about Forrest Gump or Prince Harry’s girlfriend’s hair or Veep’s Jonad or 16-year-old singer-songwriter Lorde or Paul George’s wardrobe or Silicon Valley’s racism or the Harvard band. We don’t even need to talk about Kevin. We do need to talk about why this Gawker-spawned headline was aped by so many other media outlets.
- You’re Doing It Wrong
Peeling an orange? Sprinkling tomatoes on toasted bread? Breathing? In case you think you’re a semi-competent adult who’s capable of performing basic tasks, the internet wants you to know: YOU ARE SCREWING UP EVERYTHING. The worst offender when it comes to this nonsense is Slate, which devotes an entire section to making you feel like an idiot. (Note: My critique does NOT include #fail videos, which are hilarious.)
8. Kneejerk Contrarianism
The kissing cousin of “You’re Doing It Wrong,” this is the smartypants version of trolling. Genuine contrarianism—especially the smart, well argued variety—is a joy. But some sites are so desperate for eyeballs that they traffic in stories that couldn’t be anything other than calculated hatereads.
- Taking Anything By Storm
If you’re not describing a beach at Normandy or Saddam Hussein’s palace, stop using this linguistic crutch. Unless you want to sound like you’re writing copy for infomercials; then you should keep doing it. Did you know that a coffee drink called the “flat white” is taking America by storm? No? That’s because it’s not. In this dumb Bon Appetit story (also a prime example of #5, the Fake Trend Piece) “taking America by storm” means that a handful of Aussie-fied hipster cafes are calling your latte a “flat white.” Either way you’re still paying too much for foamed milk. (UPDATE: Starbucks has decided to add the flat white to its menu. Now, it’s a trend.)
- Using Tweets in News Stories
Congratulations on your newfound proficiency in Storify. Next time a C-list reality star dies, you’ll know the protocol. Write a brief intro rehashing the available info. Don’t waste time interviewing anyone who could add depth or perspective. Embed a list of tweets (bonus points if they’re by celebs!) expressing shock and sympathy. Boom. That’s how journalism is done.
- Fake Trend Pieces
Couldn’t find your favorite ballpoint? Pens must be dead. Getting tired of your contact lenses? The monocle is back. Bona fide trends are few and far between, but trend pieces litter the internet like rat droppings—and no outlet is better at publishing bad ones than the New York Times. (Ex.1: health goth.) Need a byline? Scan your Facebook feed and with minimal research perhaps you can turn a few anecdotal experiences into a published article. (Note: To practice this “me and my friends” school of journalism, it helps if your demographic is wealthy and white.) Worried that you’re not writing about a real trend? Add a question mark to your headline. Now you can avoid claiming that dyed armpits are a thing while getting paid to write a story saying that they are. Still stumped? Write a trend piece about writing trend pieces. Because if J-school taught you anything it’s that one is a fluke, two is a coincidence, and three is a trend.
- You Won’t Believe What Happens Next
No, we probably won’t. That’s because most of us have clicked on stories promising to blow our minds, change our lives or leave us in tears. Too bad that analysis of voting data and those Beyoncé Photoshops weren’t all that shocking. When these hyperbolic headlines began appearing on Upworthy a couple of years ago, they felt intriguing and original. (Even though they recall an era of old timey print journalism when newspapers tried to top each other with the most salacious headlines.) Then everyone from low-rent content aggregators to cultural commentators started using them. Now these sort of headlines, algorithmically engineered to create a “curiosity gap” (which may be closing), feel stale and formulaic. Let’s hope 2014 goes down in history as the year we reached peak clickbait. Also, god save Click Hole.
Still going strong, and I’m as guilty as anyone. As Emerson Spartz, the founder of a slew of sites dedicated to repurposing other peoples’ content and slapping clever headlines on it, says: “Use lists whenever possible. Lists just hijack the brain’s neural circuitry.” Sorry what was that? I was looking at dogs dressed as Star Wars characters.
- Everything Is Killing You
If you paid attention to all the things that were supposedly causing your death, you’d be too paralyzed to do anything. The latest claim? “Reading On A Screen Before Bed Might Be Killing You.” Know what else might be killing us? Insipid stories written by people who have a limited grasp of science and a knack for ginning up fear-mongering headlines. Here’s how that genius story came to pass: A study found that reading electronic devices before bed can make it harder to fall asleep. Sleep deficiency has been linked to various health problems. One of those is an increased risk of certain cancers. Conclusion: Your iPad is a murderer. Want to try it yourself? Try it at home: Popcorn is super salty. Salt makes you dehydrated. Dehydration can cause death… “Popcorn Might Be Killing You!” You’re welcome.
Outrage is the defining emotion of the internet, but there are so many things to be outraged by. How do you choose? Should we be as outraged by the insane misogynistic rant of some lit blogging troll as we are by the murder of unarmed civilians by an increasingly militarized police force? Why do I care more about the latest gaffe by a politician than I do about that politician’s support for policies I despise? Public shaming has become the one sport that we can all participate in and outrage is both the fuel for and byproduct of that obsession. It’s powerful and addictive, but it has a short half-life. People who work for charities talk about “compassion fatigue.” I hope that the same sort of fatigue sets in for outrage.
Image by A. Diez Herrero via Flickr