Clickbait Headline Culture – and why I’m angry about it


On Friday, an improvised explosive device went off on the London underground. More than twenty people were treated in hospital, either for flash burns or trample injuries sustained in the panic, but luckily no one was killed or critically injured.

I’m not angry about that. Well, I am, of course; it’s a horrific thing to happen, but it is also something that twisted bitter people with a grudge against the world (often men, and men of all colours and creeds at that) have been doing for decades. My anger for it is different – it’s a more tired and fatigued sort of emotion, and not something I have the inclination or the knowledge to write about.

What I’m furious about is the frankly irresponsible and sensationalist clickbait headline culture that is endemic across all corners of our media.

I work in London. On some days I walk to my office from the mainline station, and on other days I get the tube – it’s dependant on the weather, how I feel physically and how many spoons I woke up with that morning. I never know until the train gets in which option I will take. On this day, I decided to brave the cold and some aching knees to walk the fifty minutes across central London. I was not on the underground when this attack took place.

Whilst it did happen on a line I do take when I choose the tube, the explosion went off at Parsons Green, a completely different side of London to the area of my travel. I was completely safe. I barely even suffered any travel difficulties on the tube and train journey home at the end of the day. I am in London every day – I know that I am more likely to get killed by a bus than a terrorist, and I am not about to disrupt my intricately planned routine just ‘in case’. So, the actual attack itself did not impact me or cause me any immediate distress.

What did cause me distress was the way in which, predictably, the media reported it.

When I saw the reports coming through at my desk at work, I immediately flew into a panic. I saw the headlines from the BBC, hollering ‘EXPLOSION ON LONDON UNDERGROUND’, with no details of place (in case people aren’t familiar, the London underground system covers a vast and diverse area) or basic information (the fact that it was clear from the outset that no one had been killed and everyone had managed to flee the train). Headlines conveniently omitting the kind of details that could save a friend or relative from suffering undue distress.

I messaged my family immediately. I told them ‘if you hear anything about an explosion in London, please know I am nowhere near it and I am absolutely fine.’ I then sat at my desk, quietly falling apart over the fact that no one had replied or even registered as having seen my message. My grandparents’ dog was going in to the vets for pre-operation tests; I knew my stepmum would be on the way there, already out of her mind with worry. I didn’t want to be the cause of any more, especially as I guiltily sat safe and sound at my desk.

The fact that I couldn’t immediately get hold of my family to tell them I was alright was terrifying. The thought of causing them undue terror flared my anxiety to a point that I could barely keep it reined in. What if they saw the headline, but the internet failed and they couldn’t access the news or my message to work out that I was fine? What if they heard something on the radio, but couldn’t get to their phone because they were driving? What if they panicked? What if it made them cry? What if they thought I was dead?

And then, when they finally responded, that anxiety turned into anger.

Maybe I over think things. Maybe this isn’t something that other people would get angry about. Maybe, people will say, this is me viewing the situation from an Autistic perspective. Forgetting, of course, that my autism is not a lens that I can take out at will to see things more ‘rationally’. It’s the perspective I see everything from, and it is as valid and reasonable as, and no more biased than, any neurotypical filter.

In my mind, the job of the media is to keep the public informed and hold those in power to account. But I’m not as naive as some people may think I am. I know that much of our media operates on private personal and business interest disguised as public information. I know that they work as a stirring stick of panic and division, as that panic and division then gives them something to write about that people will buy.

I know this. And I object to it. I object to it vehemently.

Again, maybe this is just my not-very-neurotypical brain reaching for something that neurotypicals would scoff at and dismiss as impossible. If that is the case, then so be it. I’d rather my brain push me to question an illogical and unjust system, and make me believe that something can be done about it, than sit back in a haze of apathetic acceptance.

I believe it can and should be different. I believe that my family and I do not deserve the anxiety or panic of a press job badly done (especially when talking about the BBC which should, and often does, run as the impartial and level headed broadcaster of the people). We live in a high tension time, and much of this tension is sustained by the very media that should be giving people the information they need to make informed and reasoned decisions. I have lost count of the number of times a headline has flashed up on my screen, or been broadcast over the radio (often before a song or advert break), with a tagline that sets my heart racing and none of the details I need to actually understand the situation. I’m not the only one who suffers from anxiety – in fact, humanity can very easily be whipped into a state unreasoned panic – and this accepted way of delivering news is harmful.

Why not, instead of ‘EXPLOSION ON THE LONDON UNDERGROUND’, say: ‘Explosion at Parsons Green Station: No Fatalities’. There you go. I just wrote an informative, yet short and sweet, headline for you. Why not use your years of expertise to do the same?

I know why. If you give me the information that I need in the headline, what cause have I to click through to your website, buy your paper, or continue listening to your radio station?

I get it. At a surface level, I understand. But I also don’t get it. I can’t wrap my head around the idea that people put these things first when its so obviously dangerous and irresponsible. I don’t understand why people don’t care about not actively causing me and others to go into uncontrollable panic or meltdown. I have no doubt that these very same people would tut and shake their head should they encounter me in such a state, and yet they do nothing to help prevent it in the first place.

And this clickbait culture of panic-inducing, unspecific headlines does the very thing that terrorists themselves are trying to achieve. By stirring the cauldron of horror and fear, they may as well be on the payroll of the people carrying out these acts. And, no matter how much they then follow up with platitudes of ‘strength’ and ‘not letting them win’, they provide the most persuasive arguments for people to do it again – that it works.

I’m incredibly angry. It’s the kind of skull-gnawing anger of being trapped in a world that simply makes no sense. This is something I would like to scream about, to shout about, to bang walls and crash heads together until someone opens their eyes and sees what I’m seeing. It’s like an itch under my scalp that I just can’t get rid of. And it makes me want to rage and cry until someone listens.

But I know, from experience, that that doesn’t do anything. The people that I want – or need – to hear me are not the people who are going to see me fall apart.

That’s why I’m writing this particular post. This is my screaming, my raging, my banging my fists on the wall and hollering at the top of my lungs until someone listens. It causes a lot less dents in the plaster this way, and a lot less trauma for the people who have to live with me. It’s a measured, and logical, approach that considers both myself and the people around me.

And if I – angry, righteous, queer, Autistic little me – can succeed in doing that, then the media outlets in this country have no excuse for their failure.

Author: QueerlyAutistic
Erin Ekins is a queer autistic writer, speaker and attempter of activism. She has an interest in all areas of autistic social justice, but has a particular passion for improving understanding and acceptance of the intersection of autism and queerness. She runs the blog and is the author of the upcoming book 'Queerly Autistic: The Ultimate Guide for LGBTQIA+ Teens on the Spectrum'. By day, she works in campaigning and influencing at a disability related charity, but, by night, she is inhabits a busy space between angry internet person and overly-excited fangirl.

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