Headlines certainly deserve scrutiny. It’s well-known that we don’t read most of the articles in our daily papers; we skim the headlines before being drawn to whatever draws our attention. The same habits apply on social media, where we scroll through our Facebook or Twitter feeds and click on whatever catches our fancy.
An April, 2016 academic study of bit.ly links shared on Twitter to BBC, CNN, Fox News, New York Times and Huffington Post articles found that 59 percent of the links were never clicked. And another study of push-through news alerts to mobile phones found that “People click on the alert about half the time.”
So for many casual readers who don’t closely follow the Israeli-Arab conflict, all they know about the latest in the Mideast is from the headlines and alerts of articles they don’t read.
This Columbia Journalism Review observation about the mobile alerts would also apply to headlines:
But push notifications are not news stories. They are snippets often written on deadline, akin to headlines that deliver the jist [sic] of a complicated event but little more. Yet there’s growing anecdotal evidence to suggest that readers may view news alerts as standalone stories, taking them at face value without clicking through to read more.
But headlines’ effects don’t end there.
Headlines actually impact the way we read and remember articles.
Psychologists have long known that first impressions really do matter—what we see, hear, feel, or experience in our first encounter with something colors how we process the rest of it. Articles are no exception. And just as people can manage the impression that they make through their choice of attire, so, too, can the crafting of the headline subtly shift the perception of the text that follows. By drawing attention to certain details or facts, a headline can affect what existing knowledge is activated in your head. By its choice of phrasing, a headline can influence your mindset as you read so that you later recall details that coincide with what you were expecting.
In terms of objective journalistic standards, bad headlines can violate one or more of the Eight Categories of Media Bias. The following four examples relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the principles apply to headlines of all areas of coverage.
1. In one day, Palestinians stabbed Israelis in three separate attacks. A New York Times headline (subsequently changed) demonstrated a lack of context so bad, it actually created a moral equivalence between the terrorists and their victims.
2. This Daily Mail headline (subsequently changed) is an example of distortion of facts. You have to read the article to learn that Mohamed Fakih was killed in a shootout he instigated along with cohorts from his Hamas cell.
3. This memorable Evening Standard headline from 2009 violates opinions disguised as news.
4. Not wanting to use the word “terror” in a headline, the New York Times resorted to some stunning lexical gymnastics to explain Palestinian youths stabbing Israelis — a violation of misleading terminology.
* * *
Having an awareness of why headlines matter and what constitutes headline bias can make us savvier media consumers whether we get our news off web sites, social feeds, or print editions. But change begins with ourselves.
Featured image: Head section by Vecteezy.com
Before you comment on this article, please remind yourself of our Comments Policy. Any comments deemed to be in breach of the policy will be removed at the editor’s discretion.