Martine St-Victor: Let's learn to read beyond the clickbait headlines

Nuance and context matter in an era when we are inundated with “content” and swiping left is all too easy.

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The media’s existential crisis, illustrated by the closures of news outlets and shrinking newsrooms, is due in part to our changing consumption habits. We’re so inundated by “content” that articles often come with a note indicating how long the story will take to read. And editors prefer pieces under 850 words because, over that, reader engagement takes a hit. This concern with saving time and holding audience interest long enough before the reader swipes left has consequences on how we understand current events. So do paywalls, which I support, by the way; it costs money to produce news.

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What this means is that, too often, we read the headline and stop there. And of course that’s no way to form our opinion on current issues. What about nuance and context? Do they no longer matter?

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The day after the 2021 federal election, which resulted in an almost unchanged political chessboard, a leading Quebec newspaper had a blistering headline: “$600M for This?”, it lamented, referring to how much the election had cost us. The sentiment was echoed in other news outlets and, of course, the frustration over what seemed like a hefty bill trickled down to electors who voiced their discontent online.

But how much is democracy supposed to cost? What is the price of fair elections? A quick look of how elections are often plagued by fraud and irregularities in many other countries should convince us that elections are not where we want to skimp on expenses.

The context behind the pearl-clutching headlines should have been a detailed explanation from Elections Canada of the mechanisms involved in electing 338 members of Parliament. After the election and the tabloid-like headlines, Elections Canada did just that, explaining the cost of democracy. But the damage had been done and public opinion was already set: The election had been a waste of money.

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Every vacation Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes with his family seems accompanied by what is intended to be shocking headlines relating to the cost of his security detail. A leading Canadian outlet had this catchy headline: “Taxpayers on the Hook for PM’s Security Detail on Vacations”. Well, yes we are. Just like we are for his salary and that of other elected officials.

Trudeau has three children. He leads a G7 country, and world leaders are subject to threats. His security detail is a priority and it wouldn’t be a surprise that it comes at a hefty price. But context-less headlines become fodder for political discourse — and voilà, all the explanations the Prime Minister’s Office may offer are lost in the faux-rage.

These scenarios should have prepared us for how the recent Dominique Ollivier affair unfolded. Ollivier resigned from her position as chair of the executive committee of the City of Montreal amid a media storm over expenses she filed in her previous role as head of the city’s public-consultation office. The headline that drowned any explanations offered after the revelations was the one about a $347 oyster dinner in Paris Ollivier had charged to her expense account. Never mind that she had a budget for expenses and she didn’t violate any laws or policies. Or that under her leadership, the office posted a surplus three years in a row. It was too late. Ollivier had already been judged and sentenced by a jury of public opinion.

Many lessons can be learned from these kerfuffles.

First, institutions need to be more transparent and educate us on how they work. They know that everything related to public money is subject to controversy. Consequently, they shouldn’t wait until a fabricated scandal erupts to explain. At a time when trust in institutions is lower than before, this seems crucial.

Second, we news consumers have a responsibility to read beyond the initial click-baiting headlines — down to where the real story always is.

Martine St-Victor is the general manager of Edelman Montreal and a media commentator. Instagram and X: martinemontreal

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