Question-based headlines prompt a more negative response from readers as well as a more negative expectation of the story that follows compared to traditional news headlines, showed a report published on 9 August by the Engaging News Project.
The report investigated the impact of click bait news headlines, by assessing readers' reactions to three types of headlines: traditional news headlines, such as "Brexit vote reflects how diversity adds to E.U. pain”; forward-reference headlines, such as “How far-right groups are using Orlando to turn LGBT people against Muslims and immigrants”; and question-based headlines, like “How 'kooky' is Trump's Keystone Pipeline proposal?” for example.
The study labelled both the forward-reference and question-based headlines as click bait – but it found no difference in perception between the traditional news headlines and the forward-reference ones, despite the fact the latter headline writing style contains a curiosity gap.
Joshua Scacco, research associate at the Engaging News Project, who worked on the report alongside Ashley Muddiman, told Journalism.co.uk the report aimed to analyse how uncertainty is framed in headlines and its impact on readers.
"News writing helps answer questions that we have about the world, about events. And the click bait question headline in a lot of ways does the exact opposite of that," he said.
"Individuals in some ways expect the news to answer questions for them, not necessarily pose questions."
As well as eliciting more negative reactions and expectations for the story that would follow, question-based headlines also prompted readers to report less expected engagement with the story than traditional or forward-reference headlines.
The team showed 2,057 adults from the United States the three types of headlines, as well as the brand of the news source (with USA Today, BuzzFeed, Fox News and MSNBC included in the study), and the policy issue. The headlines covered immigration, the economy and US Congress.
Both the brand of the news source and the topic were found to have an impact on readers' attitudes towards the headlines.
Readers had more negative expectations of headlines from BuzzFeed or an incongruent news source – they were shown either Fox News or MSNBC based on their political leanings – than of headlines from USA Today.
At the same time, headlines attributed to BuzzFeed prompted respondents to report a higher likelihood to engage with the story.
Question-based headlines about the most negatively perceived topic, US Congress, elicited the most negative reactions.
With the recent announcement from Facebook explaining the platform would penalise news organisations that post articles with click bait headlines to the network, Scacco highlighted click bait has become an important topic not only for news outlets but also for platforms that house the news, such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.
Previous research from The Engaging News Project, based at The University of Texas at Austin, also compared headlines that emphasised a solution to those that emphasised the problem, and found that people were more likely to click on the solutions headlines.
Scacco advised news outlets to use question-based headlines with caution, as they can have unintended consequences.
"They can absolutely affect perception of the news story that will follow, as well as whether or not individuals will want to engage with the content on a digital platform," he said.
"News outlets should consider pairing these types of headlines with certain issues very carefully.
"As news outlets continue to think about ways to engage audiences and other ways to keep the news product interesting but also democratically informative for individuals, [they should keep in mind] that the amount of uncertainty that's framed in a news headline is noticed and it has meaningful effects for individuals beyond just getting them to click on a news story."