February 16, 2020

Is there a Content Credibility Crisis?

Fake news, social media, political strife, sensational headlines, and clickbait have eroded journalism and ethical content. Is this true? Or is this phenomenon better explained as the inevitable ebb and flow in our relationship with content. There’s no way to predict the future accurately. But, as content creators and consumers, we need to be aware of what’s happening. Knowledge will equip us to be better content creators and self-gatekeepers.

“News” aggregation and clickbait are largely responsible for the current content credibility crisis. The tricks of the old news stand have relocated to the digital sphere.

The incentive to capture eyeballs by any means has never been more tempting. Digital advertising revenue is at an all-time high. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), in 2018, digital revenue surpassed 100 billion dollars. Of that total, about 70 billion was delivered on mobile devices, and social media accounted for around 29 billion.

Fake News isn’t New

Our founding fathers, the men who created the country, engaged in fake news. During what’s called the partisan press era (1780s–1830s), political parties subsidized newspapers and used them to hurl abuse and slander the political opposition.

The penny press followed; newspapers—costing only a cent—catered to the masses. Its business model relied on advertisers and single-issue sales. The competitive markets led to sensationalized stories and headlines (information presented in a way to provoke public interest at the expense of accuracy). For example, The Great Moon Hoax that ran in the New York Sun claimed that the esteemed British astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered life on the Moon.

By the late nineteenth century, the term fake news entered the English lexicon. “Evidence suggests that hoaxes and other false accounts, which appeared in the pages of newspapers in nearly every market, had become so prevalent by late nineteenth century as to prompt the coinage of the term ‘fake news’” (Creech & Roessner, 2018).

Society reached a tipping point; the industry was under the threat of government intervention and the public’s appetite for sensationalism had waned. The Newspaper Publicity Act of 1912 required advertisements resembling news stories to be labeled and forced papers to provide accurate circulation numbers and ownership information. The following year Ralph Pulitzer established the Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play to address complaints and “stamp out fakes and fakers.”

News Aggregation (Internet Wildfire)

News aggregators are modeled on syndication, which involves the re-publication of stories by newspapers in different geographical locations. Encyclopedia Britannica defines a news aggregator as an “online platform or software device that collects news stories and other information as that information is published and organizes the information in a specific manner.” For example, RSS feeds (Really Simple Syndication) are simple aggregators. However, some websites or organizations manually curate their content.

News aggregation seems benign, but it’s the internet’s version of wildfire. Think of when a video or other piece of content “goes viral.” News aggregation is the viral. The twin threats of news aggregators are the dissemination (or spread) of fake news and homophily.

Homophily (or the love of sameness) is people’s tendency to seek out content that aligns with their views and beliefs. The danger is that we create bubbles and begin to resent those whose views differ from ours. As William A. Hanff, an assistant professor of mass media at the University of the District of Columbia explains: “News aggregators can create hyper homophily by allowing an end user to maximize exposure to agreeable news while minimizing exposure to new and conflicting information and create an ‘echo-chamber effect’ of personal information feedback” (2019).

We are ambivalent towards news aggregators. A recent study on audience perception of aggregation and clickbait, Molyneux & Coddington (2019) found that aggregation is hardly noticed and has inconsistent effects on audience perception of quality and credibility.


Clickbait is the deliberate use of misleading headlines and thumbnails of content on the internet. “It appeared years before, during the ‘newspaper era,’ a phenomenon known as yellow journalism” (Zannettou, Sirivianos, Blackburn & Kourtellis, 2019). Clickbait headlines appeal to our emotions.

A study of clickbait headlines, including eye-tracking analysis, found that clickbait headlines evoke online users’ emotional arousal influencing their intention to read the article (Pengnate, 2019).

Perhaps, it’s not surprising that clickbait has only a marginally negative effect on perceived credibility and quality. Molyneux and Coddington (2019) found, “the effect of clickbait headlines on story credibility and quality is negative but rather small.”

Clickbait is prevalent. For context, let’s look at Facebook. Roney, Hassan & Yousuf (2017) examined 1.67 million Facebook posts made by 150 media organizations and found that about 48 percent of broadcast media (e.g., E! or NBC) posts were clickbait and about 24 percent of print, and around 46 percent for unreliable media.

What We Can Do

As folks in the content business, we need to be transparent and adhere to regulations (like disclosing paid content at the top of a page). Business 2 Community contributor Al Gomez explains, “the new currency today is not money, but trust. And that is easier destroyed than earned.” Content workers need to behave ethically. Contently’s content marketing’s code of ethics provides a good overview and starting point for creating one’s ethics code.

Click-through rate isn’t a “dirty word” if content creators and curators are transparent and ethical. Eventually, clickbait will suffer diminishing returns, and content consumers will balk at the most egregious news aggregators.

Like history has shown us, content crises come and go. Consumers wise up and demand change. Maybe public sentiment is already changing. According to the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Americans say that the role social media companies play in delivering the news results in the worst mix of news. Remember, trust—not clickbait—will sustain content consumer engagement.


Belonsky, A. (2018, September 8). How the penny press brought great journalism to populist america. Retrieved from https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-the-penny-press-brought-great-journalism-to-populist-america

Boese, A. (2015). The great moon hoax. Retrieved from http://hoaxes.org/archive/permalink/the_great_moon_hoax#dayone

Bulla, D. W. (2015, December 29,). Party press era. Encyclopædia Britannica Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/party-press-era

Creech, B., & Roessner, A. (2019). Declaring the value of truth: Progressive-era lessons for combatting fake news. Journalism Practice, 13(3), 263-279. doi:10.1080/17512786.2018.1472526

Fabry, M. (2017, August 24). Here’s how the first fact-checkers were able to do their jobs before the internet. Retrieved from https://time.com/4858683/fact-checking-history/

Gomez, A. (2016, May 19). Is your content marketing ethical? Retrieved from https://www.business2community.com/content-marketing/content-marketing-ethical-01549600

Hanff, W. A. (2019, October 10). News aggregator. Encyclopædia Britannica Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/news-aggregator

IAB internet advertising revenue report 2018 full year results. (2019). The Interactive Advertising Bureau. Retrieved from https://www.iab.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Full-Year-2018-IAB-Internet-Advertising-Revenue-Report.pdf

Molyneux, L., & Coddington, M. (2019). Aggregation, clickbait and their effect on perceptions of journalistic credibility and quality. Journalism Practice, , 1-18. doi:10.1080/17512786.2019.1628658

Pengnate, S. (2019). Shocking secret you won’t believe! emotional arousal in clickbait headlines: An eye-tracking analysis. Online Information Review, 43(7), 1136-1150. doi:10.1108/OIR-05-2018-0172

Rony, M., Hassan, N., & Yousuf, M. (2017). Diving deep into clickbaits: Who use them to what extents in which topics with what effects? Paper presented at the 232-239. doi:10.1145/3110025.3110054 Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321064790

Shearer, E., & Grieco, E. (2019, October 2). Americans are wary of the role social media sites play in delivering the news. Retrieved from https://www.journalism.org/2019/10/02/americans-are-wary-of-the-role-social-media-sites-play-in-delivering-the-news/

Snow, S. (2012, August 1). Contently’s code of ethics for journalism and content marketing. Retrieved from https://contently.com/2012/08/01/ethics/

Zannettou, S., Sirivianos, M., Blackburn, J., & Kourtellis, N. (2019). The web of false information: Rumors, fake news, hoaxes, clickbait, and various other shenanigans. Journal of Data and Information Quality (JDIQ), 11(3), 1-37. doi:10.1145/3309699