The listicle debate

Celia Honan
Jan 16 · 4 min read

Are journalists feeding our generational short attention span?

From print to screen

A listicle is, quite simply, an article presented in the form of a list.

According to The Conversation, “traditionally, print journalism has used lists either as a sidebar to other articles or as standalone specials.

Image from Pixabay

Nowadays, we spot listicles here, there and everywhere in the media. Although it isn’t exclusively a contemporary style of journalistic writing, the transition from print to digital media and the demand for easily digestible content (to fulfil the need of the apparently “shorter than a goldfish” millennial attention span) has no doubt nurtured the rise of the list format.

In their book Online Newsgathering: Research and Reporting for Journalism, Quinn and Lamble accredit research by computer scientist Jakob Nielsen, which has shown that reading from a computer screen is about 25% slower than reading print. Therefore, articles written for digital media should offer less text so that readers can scan content and absorb information quickly.

So, listicles make perfect sense, right?

Unfortunately, despite the best intent of genuinely constructive listicles, often this type of writing is “decried as lazy journalism for the perennial lunchtime ‘news snacker” — The Guardian. Such criticisms are rife due to digital and social media having become riddled with the infamous articles we know as ‘clickbait’.

Clickbait is online content of which the main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click a link, leading them to a particular web page in order to make money. Clickbait articles employ typical headlines like, “you won’t believe this” or “you’ll never guess what happens next” to drive internet traffic to a site, but then pretty much always fail to live up to expectation.

Due to ‘groundbreaking’ articles like “21 things you didn’t know about Kylie Jenner’s lip implants” splattering our screens, listicles are condemned for falling into this category. Clickbait undermines “traditional journalistic values” of accuracy, balance and fairness, by turning the focus from quality content to page ranking and site metrics.

The other side of the fence

In a world of information overload, it is perhaps unfair to criticise millennials, ahem, like myself, for valuing concise material when scanning through masses of content to locate relevant reading. Being selective is an essential skill when we’re bombarded by ‘clickbait’ and ‘fake news’.

In a listicle, fittingly, published on Relevance, author Larry Alton writes: “Millions of words of content are published daily and there’s no possible way for people to read everything on a topic. Listicles solve this problem by curating ideas into comprehensive resources.”

It’s not that we detest the thought of being engrossed in a lengthy feature story because we can’t hack the necessary concentration, but that we seek filtered down, direct and valuable content to make sense of enormous quantities of information.

“The true essence of the list form is consecutive order, taking a mass of stuff and finding a way to break it into pieces and lay it out in a line.” — Okrent

Since starting my blog, I’ve been researching the cause of food waste and the effect it’s having on our planet. To understand the science behind it, find out which countries are the biggest contributors and, likewise, which countries are suffering most, plus get the lowdown on what policies are being implemented to tackle the crisis, I’ve been checking out lengthy articles, like this:

I’ve also been researching ways to cut down, using listicles, like this:

There’s a time and place for both styles of writing, with neither being a substitute for the other. In the words of Rachel Edidin: “You don’t (ideally) write a eulogy on the back of a receipt, and you don’t bring a thousand-word essay to the grocery store.”

Today’s media variation allows us to enjoy either being engulfed by a thousand word review, or, as long as you mind the traps, the perks of ‘news-snacking’ on a listicle.

One last thing: in case you’re still hung up on the fact that your attention span is shorter than a goldfish, you’re actually safe — it’s just a myth!

Celia Honan

Written by

English Student @bournemouthuni | Writer & Journalist | Concerned with environmental issues — particularly the #foodwaste crisis | Have a scroll :)