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From scourges to stories in themselves

The internet is a world of attention-grabbing. Headlines play a crucial role. They act as hooks to reel us in. But beyond mere clickbait, these bold bursts of words hold a fascinating history. And they influence us in surprising ways.

Gone are the days of dry, literal news captions. Headlines now paint vibrant pictures. They use language like a master chef wields spices. They spark outrage, amusement, and curiosity. Often, this is before we even click on the story. This evolution, from tabloid teasers to clickbait’s digital trickery, reveals a captivating story in itself.

Early headlines resembled news bulletins. They summarised events in succinct telegrams. But by the 20th century, editors discovered the power of verbs and present tense. Drawing readers into the immediacy of action. Think “FIRES GEN. M’ARTHUR,” where the verb explodes off the page, demanding attention.

Headlines, especially in tabloids, then embraced “headlinese”. This is a vocabulary rich in emotional triggers like “sex,” “scandal,” and “weird.” They’re short, conversational sentences, often containing pseudo-quotes. They aimed to create intimacy with the reader. They make us feel invested in the “tragic” tales of celebrities and “heartbroken” victims.

Enter clickbait. The internet’s notorious headline villain. Though widely loathed for its empty promises and sensationalised content, clickbait has surprisingly effective tricks up its sleeve. It builds a connection with the reader. Using “you” and forward-referencing pronouns like “this”, they pique our curiosity. We’re lured into the unknown. We simply must know what happens next!

But clickbait isn’t the only story. Mainstream outlets are adopting its techniques. They include elements like emotive language and forward referencing. This engages readers with real news. NPR’s headline, “The World’s Most Trafficked Mammal Is One You May Never Have Heard Of,” exemplifies this blend. It uses intrigue to pull us towards valuable information.

The headline’s evolution showcases a constant push for engagement. Even if it means bending the rules of language. Clickbait may be fleeting, but its underlying linguistic strategies are being absorbed into the wider news landscape. This merging of tabloid tactics and clickbait tricks might be frustrating. But it also reveals the enduring power of language to manipulate and captivate.

So, the next time you click on a headline, remember: it’s not just a gateway to information. It’s a mini-story in itself. It’s a carefully crafted blend of history, psychology, and linguistic acrobatics. It vyes for your attention in a world overflowing with words. In this battle for clicks, headlines become storytellers. They weave narratives out of a handful of carefully chosen words. Ultimately, they shape our relationship with the news.