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June 27, 2018

Avoiding anger and clickbait in the search for new readers

We need to be smart. We want to build not just new online audiences on top of our 174-year newspaper heritage — but also trusting and loyal ones. Here are three ways we try to do that. Two of them are used by others too, according to an analysis by NewsWhip’s Gabriele Boland. She compared the social posts from the publishers that were rated as most and least trusted in a study by Michael Kearney.

1. Don’t get emotional

We don’t shy away from saying what we think. If a leader is a crook, we’ll name them. If a company is failing, we’ll tell you. We describe the world as we see it, and hope readers think our reporting stands up our viewpoint. Take our coverage of Venezuela’s crisis: we’ve said that President Nicolas Maduro is “following a script from Mussolini” and that he “rules by decree”.

It would be easy to make readers angry about such things, and their consequences — the poverty, ill health and starvation that are happening in Venezuela. But we’ve focused on sticking to factual reporting and calm criticism. This helps us to build trust with our followers on social media because it shows we will not use our writing simply to get more clicks. Our job is to produce mind-stretching journalism for globally curious people, not angry headlines for tap-happy hotheads.

Ms. Boland’s analysis of the publishers rated as the most trusted found that they garner the lowest number of angry reactions per post. She also found that when she looked at the top articles from the least trusted publishers, “emotionally charged words are common, along with a gratuitous use of caps lock”. SAD! We could easily write a post that would reach more people and elicit more reactions, but that is not what we do.

2. Don’t withhold information

We don’t want to trick you into reading our content. We want you to know what you’re getting if you click on a post: either an answer to a question or an exploration of a topic highlighted by a title. Ms. Boland’s research on the most trusted publishers says that they “include all the information you need to know before clicking through to an article or to watch a video”.

In this post on Brazil’s army (left), we could have used a vague photo and an altogether different headline. “This country is turning into a land of martial law” — and only if you clicked would you find out it’s Brazil. But clickbait is as seductive and as empty as junk food. It’s not a good way to build trust. We’re more interested in informing our readers and seeing them share or discuss our content.

3. Don’t write something only because it’s hot

Our correspondents and columnists write for their section editors, not social media editors. Responding only to what’s trending on social media can erode trust in online media — it’s an epidemic that Nick Davies called “ninja-turtle syndrome”. Just as kids in the playground all want the hot toy of the moment, he argues, some journalists use social media trends to copy what everyone else is covering. They’re chasing clicks and ad revenue. As Chris Moran recently wrote, “we need strong, robust thinking about where audience data takes journalism”.

There’s a grey area here because of course, it’s our duty to cover what our paying readers want to know. If everyone is talking about the latest American health-care bill, then we should cover it. Readers expect us to explain it to them. But they also expect us to illuminate much more than that, which means finding and covering stories that they didn’t know about. Slavishly following whatever any given day’s Facebook fumblers are causing to trend is not for us. Our editors are smart: they train their sharp focus on readers’ best interests, nothing else.

No doubt there are many more ways to build trust on social media. What would you add?

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