The Art of Headlines


Headlines and by-lines are carefully crafted. Their purpose is to give part of a story to lure readers further, not to inform them outright. But ironically, many people today appear to do the exact opposite – they will read the headlines, form an opinion, and move on, with an optional share on social media stage in between. Misled readers, unclicked links – who’s to blame, if anyone, for this?

If you were to ask me, I’d blame both, but more so the reader than the people creating content. While there are things that could be change about how information is presented (which I will talk about later), the context for those changes rests in how the average person consumes media. Most people in the US, and I would assume Australia has a reasonable percentage in this camp too, get their news from social media. The very nature of the platforms they are reading news from is erratic, constantly updating, leaving people jumping from one thing to another.

When it comes to news being shared via social media, the headline and first sentence or two is usually all that gets read. One doesn’t even need to rely on studies to notice that trend – just read the comments on Facebook or Twitter from people expressing anger over something that is clearly explained in the article. But even with this cursory glance, quite a few people will share posts without looking any deeper. I have many Facebook contacts who will share news stories but, not to mean any offense, probably don’t have much of a background understanding of some of the stuff they comment on.

Rather than reading a headline and feeling informed, consumers need to take a more active role. Only by reading the full article will you get the full picture, and not the specially designed snapshot given to you in the form of a headline and single image. To use an example I’ve written about before, the casual reader of the Guardian might surmise that the UK Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is anti-Semitic. While certain members of the Labour Party are undoubtedly questionable in this regard, the incessant call for Corbyn’s downfall, and accusations of his own anti-Semitism, are completely unfounded.

Headlines are designed to lure people in, but also, contradictorily some might say, have just enough information for people to go off without clicking the link. While more information will be in the article itself, whatever the main point, the ‘agenda’, of a news outlet is will be conveyed in those short and succinct posts. I generally make a habit of reading a post if I’m going to bother sharing it as well, but every share adds to the exposure of said post.

So while readers need to take a more active role and can be blamed for their lazy ignorance, that does not excuse media outlets entirely. I’m not suggesting that they post entire articles on social media – that would obviously defeat the purpose of posting a link in the first place, even I don’t do that. So what can they do? For starters, while headlines are meant to be a tool to intrigue people, they should first and foremost contain the more important facts of the article. To carry on the Guardian-Corbyn example, here is a headline and by-line from July 16th:

“Labour peers tell Corbyn: you have failed test of leadership

More than 60 party members in Lords take out advert attacking leader over antisemitism”

Even the Lords themselves, as evident further in the article, did not call Corbyn anti-Semitic, only accusing him of “allowing antisemitism to grow in our party and presiding over the most shaming period in Labour’s history”. A damning criticism, arguably not even true, and yet this advert is one of countless articles in the Guardian pushing the narrative that Corbyn has crumbled the remains of the Labour Party singlehandedly. Only through some scattered quotes is it recognised that many of the Labour opposition to Corbyn’s leadership comes from people who are against Corbyn’s policies – those who have an interest in toppling him to have their own interests represented.

It might be cynical to assume this, but one of the implications you could deduce from this is that the anti-Semitism line is merely a way to depose Corbyn by dragging him through the mud. Better to have the Party and its leadership’s reputation tarnished with spurious claims and look like fighters for justice than to openly admit your views are at odds with the progressive turn Labour has taken under Corbyn. Both will collapse the party from within, but only one will leave them out on top.

Is there any truth to the above? Perhaps – I mean, the House of Lords is not even elected, their sole interest is their own power and position, screw the progressive policies of a resurgent Labour Party. But I digress; the point I’m trying to make is that the Guardian through their headline (about an advert paid for by the Lords in the Guardian) is pushing an agenda. It’s not until you read further into the article, and having prior knowledge about some of the events, people, etc. involved that you get the full picture.

I’m rather critical of the Guardian when it comes to their Corbyn reporting, and it provides the perfect example of how headlines can mislead people. An otherwise ‘progressive’ paper, the Guardian no doubt leaves some of its readers disillusioned about the Labour Party – a sure fire way to see the Conservative Party return to power, which will, of course, continue the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK; fancy that.

Admittedly, one can’t expect the Guardian to state all of the above in their social media posts, or any other outlet to similarly express the content of every article. But what they can do is form headlines and by-lines that cover highly relevant facts in a way that allows even casual readers to receive a balanced and somewhat informative snapshot, not just whatever idea is being peddled.

In short, consumers need to learn to read more rather than accepting and sharing headlines, and media outlets must maintain balance and integrity in their reporting. Sadly, I say to those goals: good bloody luck.


Liked this? Read Silencing Powerful Voices

Previous piece: Language in Journalism

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