Newspaper headlines vs articles (a response to @jdc325)

Posted by Christie Malry on February 13, 2012 at 10:52 pm

jdc325 complains, with some justification, about accuracy in the press. Finding and pointing out stupid errors in print and online media represents a very rich vein for bloggers, including me.

Newspapers such as Dacre’s Daily Mail though, and I’m not making this bit up, are allowed to print pretty much any headline they like. As long as they make clear at some point that the headline is untrue. Perhaps in, say, paragraph 19 of the article.

This is problematic. Not everyone will read the whole article. A few will read right to the end, some will look at the pictures and maybe read the first couple of paragraphs. But everyone will have been exposed to the headline.

The Poynter Institute found that online participants read an average of 77 percent of story text they chose to read; broadsheet participants read an average of 62 percent of stories they selected; and tabloid participants read an average of 57 percent. They also note that readers described as ‘scanners’ viewed headlines and other page display elements without reading much text. It’s clear that some people might be influenced by a headline without ever reading the attached article.

His main point is that discrepancies between the semantic content of a headline (and/or its accompanying photo, where applicable) may mislead a casual reader. However, I remain unconvinced that this risk should lead to regulatory intervention:

  1. The newspapers want you to read the full article. They make their money from convincing advertisers that they have a loyal readership who spend their time poring over every single column inch. So they will reel you in via the headline and perhaps a nice photo. Yes, that's indeed precisely what jdc325 did, with deliberate irony, with his own article.
  2. It's simply unreasonable to expect the headline to represent a synopsis of the entire article. It (plus picture, etc etc) is there to entice people towards the article. Necessarily, a headline will contain less information than the full article and, in order to meet the space limitations, will need to take shortcuts to get its point across. A short headline could never encapsulate all the semantic content of the full article. Indeed, in my view, expecting it to do so risks misunderstandings of #twitterjoketrial proportions.
  3. The very idea that newspapers such as the Daily Express and Daily Mail intend to mislead their readership by publishing accurate articles under inaccurate headlines is - and I think I'm being as charitable as I can possibly be here - unproven.
  4. It's unfair to summarise the Press Complaints Commission's judgment as leaving newspapers "free to print headlines which are misleading or inaccurate as long as there’s something in the article itself that contradicts the headline". In fact their judgment says that headlines must be considered in the context of the article as a whole. Unlike the obviously tongue-in-cheek headline and picture, it's not clear that jdc325 realises the bias in his own summary of the PCC's judgement. There are shades of Matthew 7:5 here.
  5. And I'm not sure that we should be seeking regulatory intervention to deal with the risk that some readers might misunderstand an article by failing to read all of it. What sort of regulatory intervention could possibly address possible lack of comprehension of a varied readership?

Instead, I'd say we must stick with what we have. Let the PCC do what it does. It can improve, for sure, and one would expect the independent Lord Hunt to start making his mark. Let bloggers fill the space to clarify those areas that the PCC can't reasonably address. If nothing else, it gives us something to write about. Some day we might even find a way to attract people to read it!

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