EXCLUSIVE: The Most Overused Headline Loses Its Power

(Illustration Kaitlyn Flannagan for the Observer)

(Illustration: Kaitlyn Flannagan for Observer) Kaitlyn Flannagan for the Observer

To judge from recent headlines, news outlets are nabbing EXCLUSIVE stories with alarming frequency: A widely disseminated CDC report about the Zika virus? Exclusive. A real housewife doing press for yet another new season? An exclusive, for sure.

Long a tabloid staple, the designation supposedly shows readers that one publication has gotten a scoop, but in this age of aggregation, the ubiquitous adjective has become a way to describe any story featuring original reporting.

“Just about every interview is exclusive of course, unless it’s being bugged,” Gregory Galant, CEO of Muck Rack, a platform that connects publicists with journalists, exclusively told the Observer (when it comes to running the “E” word, this publication is as guilty as many others).“In an age where facts are instantly available to anyone with an Internet connection, there’s more and more pressure to show an article has a unique angle to it.”

Politico’s media critic Jack Shafer judges the exclamatory epithet as an “embarrassing bit of peacockery journalists use to make their stories more compelling.”

“Very few so labeled stories,” he continued by email, “are genuinely ‘exclusive’ in the sense that the subject is talking to nobody else or that nobody has gotten the story.” The lowering of the exclusivity bar, he pointed out, now means, “‘our reporter was the only reporter in the room.’ ”

‘Publishers have to be careful because the term has diminishing returns over time.’—vice president of marketing insights at the digital marketing firm Adestra

NY1 anchor Pat Kiernan, who closely monitors the media for his “In the Papers” segment, laments how “the word is slapped onto stories where there’s no evidence anyone else was pursuing or even interested in the story. It’s not an ‘exclusive’ if nobody else wanted the story.”

And like any term too often employed, it loses power through repetition.

“The meaning of exclusive has to be true and it has to not be overused,” said Ryan Phelan, the vice president of marketing insights at the digital marketing firm Adestra. “Publishers have to be careful because the term has diminishing returns over time.”

But do readers, who frequently share links without regard to news outlet, care who first reported it? Unlikely.

“Most exclusives get reblogged and aggregated so quickly that readers don’t even remember or notice the original source,” social media strategist Taylor Lorenz explained. She hasn’t “noticed exclusives providing that significant of a bump [in traffic], unless it’s a big blockbuster-type story.”

And even then, readers often prefer snappy aggregation to the original reportage.

“‘Exclusive’ is something writers and reporters like because it matters to them and their colleagues at other publications, but the average person on Facebook doesn’t care,” noted Mother Jones engagement editor Ben Dreyfuss. “They just want the story.”