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Today's TMI Media Culture: Baiting Clicks At Women's Expense

Culture

In 1994, at the age of nine, I received my first “serious” diary as a gift from my grandmother. Though I haven’t seen it in ages, I remember the look and feel of it quite well. It had a thick, puffy pink cover, canoodling teddy bears on the front, and an actual lock and key to keep my secrets safe and to myself. Admittedly, the contents were not compelling for anyone beyond grade school, as I primarily divulged current crushes, playground drama, and lunch line gossip.


That diary, and the subsequent journals that followed, played a key role in helping me decide what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer. And I was focused on achieving my goal, too. After serving as a reporter, then editor, for my high school newspaper, went on to study journalism in college. As a student, I threw myself into classes, reported for the newspaper, served as editor of our collegiate magazine, completed three media internships, and wrote professionally for local, national, and even international publications while completing my degree. After graduating in 2008, I briefly worked as a newspaper reporter, and then shifted into a freelance position, where I’ve remained ever since.

The TMI Media Industry

I’ve now been writing professionally for over 10 years, which may not seem like very long to some of you. But anyone in the media industry will tell you the same thing about last decade: it has seen huge, sweeping changes. I’ve watched countless publications – many I’ve written for – shutter their print editions and move online. I’ve seen outlets flounder (and budgets plummet) as Google changes its algorithms on a whim. And, as someone who covers primarily women’s lifestyle content, I’ve seen a salient shift in the type of content that’s pushed.

Even established media outlets have moved from news and thought pieces to listicles with suggestive titles and image-heavy regurgitations of the same pop culture fodder. Countless new sites appear and disappear attempting to garner a massive audiences--fast; often with images of scantily-clad women, promises to help you "stalk your boyfriend" and the opportunity to read up on "sex positions you will never believe."

CLICKBAIT

(on the Internet) content, especially that of a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page.

Add to that all the headlines promising free goodies, from downloads to products, which quickly hijack your screen, magically opening multiple windows replete with flashing pages and invasive pop ups.

“In the advertising world it’s called ‘bait and switch,’ and it’s illegal. Bait-and-switch happens when a store advertises a particular item for sale, but when you try to make a purchase you’re told the item is no longer available, but there is a similar item you can buy, for, of course, more money," writes Larry Burriss of the Murfreesboro Post. "In the Internet world this kind of thing is called ‘clickbait,’ and it happens when a news or other headline tell you one thing, but then never delivers on the promise. It’s not really a scam, because no one is really hurt.”

Perhaps not hurt, but what is the effect of too much clickbait?

I like to say that we live in a “TMI” and “tl;dr” climate of journalism. If a story’s not laden with images and gifs, if it doesn’t feel sexy or raw or tug at your insides, and if it doesn’t teach you something quickly, then good luck with your bounce rate stats. And if the headline isn’t compelling enough to make a reader want to click outside of their social network portal, then good luck getting eyes on your content in the first place.

Media outlets, of course, must cater to what readers want. This results in clickbait – “you’ll never guess what happened next!” – headlines, as well as an increase in stories that reach unprecedented levels of personal divulgence. I’ve seen editors consistently request pitches about deeply private experiences ranging from sexual fetishes to embarrassing feminine hygiene moments to heartbreaking divorce and breakups. I’ve also seen a huge increase in calls for experimental stories that push societal norms and try to create shock value.

It could be a bias because it’s the world I live in, but I’ve found that this type of “TMI” and “shock value” writing is most often found in women’s media. And to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about it.

On one hand, I think the media world is giving readers exactly what they want more of, otherwise those stories wouldn’t do so well. I also think this “let’s get real and raw” approach can be healthy and empowering, as it shines a light onto parts of female-hood that have otherwise been dark. Stories about sex gone wrong, mental health issues, relationship failures, and more, are chipping away at the unachievable goal of perfect femininity that was been built up in years prior. However, many online publishers are simply trying to fight a losing game.

"Newspapers are losing readers and revenue. Some are shutting down all over North America," writes Jeffrey Dvorkin for PBS. "In the rush to return to the once-rich profit margins of the early 2000s, media organizations are being urged by their shareholders to dispense with expensive ventures like international reporting. Newspapers have closed or been downsized, broadcasters have cut their more expensive (and more labor-intensive) content....This increased competition from media organizations like Buzzfeed, Vice Media and Vox have put renewed pressure on legacy media. Broadcasters especially try to entice their audiences through click-bait."

Digital Exploitation

At the same time, though, I think we’re walking a fine line between empowering female writers and their audiences, and exploitation for a paycheck. As a writer, I’ve personally vowed to not write about anything I’m uncomfortable sharing, and I like to think that other writers have done the same for themselves. If a woman feels 100% OK writing about her forgotten tampon, and if she has an audience who wants to read about it, so be it.

Regardless it cannot be denied that women are one of the main targets when it comes to clickbait. Many female writers report that there is a new uncomfortable reality in which they are being forced to write about topics that make them uncomfortable or face a much smaller list of digital publications they can write for.

One such writer reports that for a full year while employed at a "woman-focused website," she was often told by the managing editor to cover topics of a sexual nature, especially those that put women into a negative light.

"Basically the option was to write the story or get fired," said one editor. "It was weird because the staff was almost all women and I can't imagine they didn't also feel uncomfortable writing some humiliating topics like how to look hot in order to keep the man in your life, but no one said anything. The fact that the top editors were men added a weird dynamic."

Thankfully there has been some pushback towards clickbait, as social sites like Facebook have implemented algorithms that help weed out content-poor pieces that rely on splashy headlines for a usually quickly abandoned click. The system can identify clickbait headlines by utilizing a similar process that classifies spam emails. Facebook then determines those websites with misleading headlines, and ranks them lower in the social network's News Feed.

"What we hope is this will create incentives for publishers to post less clickbait," Adam Mosseri, vice president of product management for News Feed, told Reuters last year. "We tried to be very concrete about what we defined as clickbait."

From an overarching media perspective, however, I think it’s important to find a balance in the type of content we create for women. Sure, there’s no denying that readers indulge in “TMI” stories (think: our obsession with reality TV) and that such content can do some good, but readers want – and need – to read other types of content, too.

We need content that empowers women in the business sphere, content that discusses mental and physical health from an unbiased, matter-of-fact POV instead of an experimental one. And alongside stories that help normalize failure (a good thing), we still need aspirational stories that showcase kickass females dominating their worlds.

I really do think we’re moving there, albeit slowly, and I’m already noticing a shift. I’ve seen an uptick in new media outlets that aim to create the kind of content discussed above, and I’ve also seen existing media outlets trying to find a better balance in the type of stories they’re publishing. Personally, I’ve vowed to participate more actively – both as a writer and reader – in outlets that are creating the type of media I want to see more of. I would encourage anyone reading this to do the same, and to remember that in the online world, we “vote” with our clicks.

Career

Male Managers Afraid To Mentor Women In Wake Of #MeToo Movement

Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.


In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.

What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.

Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.

Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.

While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.

According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.

In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.


Source-Alex Brandon, AP

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.

Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.

The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.