Veteran comedienne and Hollywood legend Betty White is not dead, contrary to rumours that have been circulating online for a few days. Concerns over the health of the ninety two year old actress prompted hundreds of thousands of internet users to double check with Google, who helpfully pointed readers in the direction of a satirical news piece. The problem is, most readers misread the title and skipped the body of the article completely!
The confusion erupted after commentary on social media (thanks again, Twitter!) led other readers to believe that Ms. White had passed away. In fact, the spurious rumour had its roots in a satirical piece published on fake news site Empire News. The piece appeared under the headline “Actress Betty White, 92, dyes peacefully in her Los Angeles home” and discussed Ms. White’s hair colour and dyeing habits.
By artfully using a homonym, Empire News managed to convince less discerning ‘headline readers’ of a celebrity death; but it was also sad proof that news has been reduced to nothing more than ‘click-bait’. As more and more online content becomes short, snappy and essentially irrelevant, news outlets are struggling to produce anything more than a gripping headline. The Empire News article satirises our interaction with this kind of low-grade tabloid journalism and our fascination with celebrity news. It also trades on a less-than-thorough public all too willing to restrict the news to its catchy headlines. In the end, the mere fact that it became a hoax-of-sorts would no doubt gratify its editorial board and the writer(s) responsible for it.
Despite the obviously humorous nature of the body text, predictable readers misread the headline en masse. Soon enough, they were taking to social media to express their shock and disbelief. What followed was a cavalcade of posts which didn’t end until Ms. White’s agent contacted the LA Times to inform them that she was indeed alive and well. In fact, she was on the set of her TV series, Hot In Cleveland.
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