Is journalism twerking itself to death? Study probes new media and the rise of click-bait

If you’re seeing more provocative headlines and news stories that appeal to your prurient interests — such as Miley Cyrus wiggling her buttocks or Jon Hamm’s wang — you can blame the newly developed relationship between journalists and their online audiences, according to one researcher.

A study published in New Media & Society in April concluded that the ability of online news outlets to instantly track and quantify their audiences’ behavior had overturned the traditional process of journalistic gatekeeping.

Writers, reporters, and editors are now more than ever basing their news selection process on audience feedback, which is provided by various web analytic programs. This trend is being pushed further by the decline of traditional media — and the significant revenue it generated — which forces journalists to focus on generating web traffic to stay afloat.

But journalists aren’t just being forced to write about twerking, the journalistic field is itself twerking, writes Edson C. Tandoc Jr., an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“The Online Oxford Dictionary (2013) defines ‘twerk’ as an informal verb that means to ‘dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance,’ he explained in his study. “The journalistic field, threatened by its shrinking economic capital, is dancing to the popular music of consumer-driven logic, for it appears — at least so far — that this is the only way to survive. Still dependent on an advertising-driven model, online journalism finds itself having to chase online traffic, a routine made possible and further enabled by web analytics.”

“In order to attract an audience no longer loyal to legacy news, journalism dances in a provocative manner — publishing stories about the wildest celebrities, uploading adorable cat videos, highlighting salacious headlines — hoping to attract attention, to increase traffic,” Tandoc added. “For media critics, this is a low, almost squatting stance, for an institution that relies a lot on respect and reputation. For a few others, this is journalism trying to survive. Journalism — to some extent — is twerking.”

For his study, Tandoc visited three online newsrooms that were among the 50 biggest media sites in the United States. He interviewed 30 journalists about their news selection processes and their relationship to audience feedback.

“It used to be that news editors did not have to think about how many people are attending to their news content, consistent with the wall of separation between the editorial department that protected its journalistic autonomy and the business department that took care of audience size and revenue. But things have changed,” he wrote.

Journalists now use web analytic software like Chartbeat to track how many people are viewing their stories. Tandoc found that editorial decisions were primarily driven by the amount of web traffic generated by a potential story. The journalists he interviewed declared an interest in keeping a balance between reporting important news and making money, but more often than not the balance tipped “toward the goal of increasing traffic by using web analytics to come up with click-bait stories.”