Once you learn to take a critical eye to journalism, the exaggerations and even outright distortions are so plain to see that you marvel that anybody could believe any of it. But the reality is that most people are only half paying attention while either reading or watching the media. You ‘watch’ the television news that’s on in the background while you’re getting dinner ready and you leaf through the newspaper while waiting for a train. Rarely do you sit down and give your full intellectual attention to the news.
There does still exist media that is more weighty and requires more attention. There is still the concept or a ‘paper of record’ which is a serious newspaper that exists to verify and publish the hard facts. This can be contrasted with the free newspaper that you pick up at the train station and whose purpose is to distract you on your commute home from work. The latter is low quality while the former is high quality. The same dynamic exists on television in the difference between the evening news bulletin and an hour long investigative journalism show.
These distinctions have collapsed somewhat since the advent of the internet. One of the primary drivers of that is attention. There is no point in producing high quality journalism unless there is a market of people who have the time and energy to consume it. High quality journalism requires giving attention and implies having the time and energy to do so. But that is lacking nowadays as attention spans are now sub-divided between the thousands different competitors vying for eyeballs. For that reason and others, even papers of record have devolved into clickbait, tabloid-style journalism.
The point of clickbait is, you guessed it, to get clicks. On a web-based news site, there are three primary variables you can alter to try and get more clicks: the headline, the tagline and the photo. We have already talked about photographs in a previous post. Headlines and taglines barely require any explanation. The tagline is simply the short sentence beneath the headline that goes into slightly more detail on what the story is about.
Headlines, in particular front page headlines, have always been important as they are the first thing anybody sees whether it’s on a website or on the front of the newspaper sitting in the rack at the supermarket or convenience store. Tabloid newspapers often deliberately exaggerate headlines for effect. Papers of record, on the other hand, are expected to turn out factual and sober headlines that reflect the story accurately.
The simple choice of stories is, of course, the main way in which a newspaper affects its readers view of the world. For that reason, as educated readers we should seek out a variety of news media so that we can get a variety of alternative views on what is happening. Often just scanning the headline and tagline is enough to see what agenda is being pushed by one paper relative to another. Another thing to watch out for if you do read the article is whether the contents of the article actually match the headline. The headline serves as the frame in which the journalist wants to put the story. It predisposes the reader to interpret the article in a certain way. In the desperate fight for attention that predominates on the battleground of modern media, exaggeration in headlines is almost a necessity but there’s a fine line between exaggeration and fabrication.
For an example of exaggeration in a headline, check out this article from the BBC. It’s yet another example of their biased Trump coverage.
The headline states that Republicans were ‘alarmed’ by Trump withdrawing troops from Afghanistan but the body of the article quotes Mitch McConnell and another Republican saying they thought the idea was a ‘mistake’. Calling something a mistake is about as polite as it gets in the world of politics. It certainly does not connotate ‘alarm’. At best, you might say the Republicans in question were critical of Trump withdrawing troops but the BBC felt the need to exaggerate their headline no doubt motivated by their seemingly bottomless desire to make Trump look bad. Most other media outlets I saw simply reported the troop withdrawal and then had a quote criticising it. Apparently only the BBC felt the need to manipulate the headline in this way.
Let’s have a look at a more extreme example of exaggeration which borders on being outright misleading. This is one I came across while researching one of my posts on the coronavirus. As part of my research for that series, I read through a number of articles in media that proclaimed to report on various aspects of the science behind corona. One of the startling patterns I noticed was of a media article that was a misrepresentation of the science. This was often done by summarising a scientific article incorrectly (protip: if you have the time, follows the links in articles and see if the content of the link says what the journalist purported it to say. Often, it won’t).
Another pattern I saw was where the headline of the article did not follow from the content of the article itself. Here is one such example from the publication Nature.
The headline reads “Bat cave solves mystery of deadly SARS virus…”. Then in the first sentence we are told “After a detective hunt across China, researchers chasing the origin of the deadly SARS virus have finally found their smoking gun.”
“Solving the mystery” and finding a “smoking gun” give the reader the firm impression that the scientific evidence is overwhelming. Upon closer reading of the article, however, this is simply not the case.
Take this quote: “Although no single bat had the exact strain of SARS coronavirus that is found in humans, the analysis showed that the strains mix often. The human strain could have emerged from such mixing…” The word ‘could’ alongside its cousins ‘may’ and ‘might’ have played a big role in the reporting on the corona event. The whole point of a smoking gun is that it is definitive and unarguable. You either have one or you don’t. Could and might and may are not words you use when you have definitive evidence. So, the science as reported in the article is not conclusive and, ironically, the article even contains a quote from another scientist who throws cold water on the whole theory. The headline is misleading, giving the reader the impression of a certainty which did not exist. A reader not really paying attention, or without the necessary understanding of the science, would have been led to a false impression.
That is the power of headlines and taglines. They massage the meaning in the direction that the journalist or editor wants to go. Sometimes this results in simple exaggeration. Pushed too far, it creates a story where there really isn’t one and actively misleads the reader.
A more light-hearted exercise for this post. Check out The Sun, the British newspaper that has turned headlines into an art form and see how they use language playfully to represent what is in their articles.
This series of posts will be a lot more fun if readers can contribute. Feel free to post in the comments with any juicy examples of ‘over-zealous’ headlines.
All posts in this series:
- Propaganda School: Introduction
- Propaganda School Part 1: Guilt by Association
- Propaganda School Part 2: The Passive Voice
- Propaganda School Part 3: Editorialising the News
- Propaganda School Part 4: Headlines and Taglines
- Propaganda School Part 5: Anchoring
- Propaganda School Part 6: Metaphor
- Propaganda School Part 7: Predicting-the-Future
- Propaganda School Part 8: Appeal to Authority
- Propaganda School Part 9: Buzzwords
- Propaganda School Part 10: Lies, damned lies and statistics
- Propaganda School Part 11: Revenge on the Nerds