Clickbait makes me question journalism ethics

Sophie Baillie, PR & Marketing Director

At university I studied journalism and looked at the world through slightly rose-tinted glasses. I had big dreams to one day be a music journalist, which then later changed to a travel journalist; travelling the world and writing about it, what could be better?

After a stint at being a journalist after graduating, I was soon to find out that the industry wasn’t really for me, but I really wanted to continue doing what I loved, which was writing. It has now been almost eight years since I graduated and I find myself working for a wonderful public relations and marketing agency with clients that have meaning and purpose.

I am really fortunate that, as part of my role, I have to keep abreast of news and trends from around the world and am constantly learning new things. However, recently I have been shocked and saddened to read headlines that have made me question the ethics of journalism; stories like Gareth Thomas being forced to reveal the results of his diagnosis, Ben Stokes’ family tragedy that happened over 30 years ago making front page news, and then just last week, details of Mike Thalassitis’ made headline news.

We have recently started to work with the Internet Watch Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to making the internet a safer place for children and adults across the world by eliminating child sexual abuse imagery. Two weeks ago, we secured an interview with the CEO with The Daily Telegraph. The interview was published in Sunday’s paper (08.09.19), which then lead to a number of other publications picking the story up and repurposing it for their audiences; generating headlines such as “Kids’ vids for pervs”. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that publications have style guides to adhere to, but are headlines like the above necessary?

While studying journalism, a large focus was placed on ethics and law. I still find to this day, one of the most contentious issues surrounding journalism ethics is whether a story is deemed of “public interest”; the most common justification that journalists make for their work, underscoring the moral authority of journalism, to ask hard questions to people in power, to invade the privacy of other and to sometimes test the limits of ethical practice in order to discover truth.

There are blurred lines around what exactly is of public interest. To put it simply, it should be about what matters to everyone in society, about the common good, the general welfare and the security and well-being of everyone in the community that we serve. So, if this is the definition, I struggle to understand why news outlets are getting away with publishing stories like I mentioned above.

Are they really of public interest, or are news outlets more concerned about the number of hits, likes and shares each article is getting? I don’t think I am alone in this thinking. Wouldn’t it be great to see more articles published championing good things and positive movements, like we have seen with Friday’s climate change strikes? I was utterly inspired to read some of the interviews with children, who were making a stand for something they believed in. In my opinion, that is of public interest and all in all, clickbait should not compromise journalism ethics.