Turning inner space into outer space

April 18, 2015

Hyped headlines about Apple Watch don't tell the full story

If you have been following the latest about the new Apple Watch, you may be quite impressed by the sales figures. Headlines everywhere have been announcing that Apple sold a million of the devices in the U.S. alone on the first day they were available for pre-order.

Here are some samples:

But wait a minute — are there weasel words in those headlines? Why, yes there are: “estimated” and “suggests.” So maybe that one million figure is just a ballpark. By citing a “report,” one publication signalled that it didn’t bother to check. If the number is wrong, we can blame someone else’s report.

Another headline doesn’t bother to quibble, stating the one million as fact and drawing conclusions from it: “1+ Million Sold: Why People Covet Apple Watch.”

As it turns out the report making suggestions about sales of Apple Watches came from a company called Slice Intelligence. And it really was just a guess on their part, based on their analysis of online shopping — the methodology of which is not revealed. Never heard of Slice Intelligence? Neither have I. Shouldn’t we wait for an official announcement from Apple itself before bandying about figures like this? Well, yeah, but one million is such a big round number and who knows if Apple will ever divulge anything.

I bring all this up as a way of introducing you to a report that came out earlier this year called Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content. Author Craig Silverman points out that in the Internet age, news organizations are more interested in funnelling readers to their website than they are in building a reputation for accuracy.

He puts it this way:

They scour the web and social media for anything that might generate traffic, and work to get it up and promoted as a fast as possible. Verification and context are someone else’s job, should they choose to do it.

Weasel words become the order of the day:

News organizations utilize a range of hedging language and attribution formulations (“reportedly,” “claims,” etc.) to convey that information they are passing on is unverified. They frequently use headlines that express the unverified claim as a question (“Did a woman have a third breast added?”). However, research shows these subtleties result in misinformed audiences.

Those question-style headlines should be a red flag on any story. The answer is almost always “no” because if it were true you can be sure it would be stated as fact: “Woman has third breast added” is far more likely to draw readers than “Did a woman have third breast added?”

On the other hand, I can see why some editors resort to unverified or less-than-honest headlines. A well written headline, after all, pretty much tells the whole story so why bother clicking on it and reading more? Especially when there are a gazillion other headlines coming out of the firehose demanding our attention.

And seriously — who are these million people who have supposedly bought an Apple Watch? Do you personally know even one of them? That alone should make us wonder whether the whole thing is just hype.