Why headlines matter

Consider the following:

  • Imagine a hypothetical country in which the president made a decision to change the rules by which medication for heart disease was prescribed.
  • And suppose that in this country a woman died from a heart-related problem and her grieving son blamed his mother’s death on the President’s decision.
  • And further suppose that a reporter interviewed the son who said: “I feel as though the President has stabbed my mother through the heart”.
  • And finally imagine that a newspaper ran this reporter’s story with the headline at the start of this article:

President stabs woman through heart

Now if I read that headline I would assume that it was an assertion of a fact. But in fact it isn’t. And once I read the article and discovered that this was a quote from a grieving individual I would ask:

  • How did that headline, with its misleading and negative view get written?
  • If the newspaper wanted to highlight this important issue, why did they pick this misleading headline which undermines their own credibility?

So back to reality, and a letter from Thom Davis (reproduced in full at the end of this article) who thinks that I have been unfair in my comments on his article in The Independent.

I called attention to the fact that the article’s headline asserted that as a result of the Chernobyl disaster there were ‘cemeteries the size of cities’. This is completely untrue. And to me it raised the same two questions I highlighted above.

I am not sure of the timeline, but as I recall it, when I tweeted the author for more details he went quiet and when I looked again at the article, the headline had changed to something which was not an untruth. It may have been as a result of my questioning that the headline was changed. The newspaper made no record that the article had been changed.

Months later Thom wrote to me arguing at length that I should conclude nothing from the fact that a misleading headline was placed above his article: that it was just an editing mistake. I beg to differ.

Reading the article itself, without the misleading steer of its headline one can hear Thom’s genuine concern for the plight of these refugees. And I am happy to accept that the headline was indeed not of his choosing.

But in what Universe could a junior editor claim the existence of hundreds of thousands of dead people? The answer is: only in a Universe where nonsense is believed and propagated as easily as in a school playground. And I find it hard to believe that anyone in that profession could be unaware of its potential impact on UK readers.

The point of my article was to highlight this misleading headline and the fact it was changed without any record of the change. And that The Independent has a history of doing this.

The Independent did Thom a disservice in choosing a headline which exposed their own editorial prejudice and undermined his article’s credibility.

The headline of an article sets the tone and expectation for an article. And it matters.

P.S. (A blog is not a newspaper article, but for the sake of accuracy, I edited the text in red on Tuesday 5th August 2014)

References

  • My original article is here
  • Thom’s article – with its modified headline – is here
  • Thom’s reply to my article is reproduced in full below

Dear Protons for Breakfast,

I am the author of this article.

I did not choose the original title. As I believe I pointed out in a following tweet (not shown above).

As Vanessa rightly suggests, it is standard practice in journalism for the titles and taglines to be the choice of the editor. As soon as I read the title, I immediately emailed the editor to get it changed. Which he promptly did, within minutes. I agree with you, to put “cemeteries the size of cities” in the title like this is obviously misleading, as this is not what the article is saying – and precisely why I had the title changed immediately. It seems in your critique of the article you have focussed upon this.

For what it is worth I do not think the editor did this on purpose as some kind of anti-nuclear (or in your words ‘Nuclear Nonsense’) agenda – but was merely the consequence of a misreading and rushed deadline. As Vanessa suggests:

“An alternative approach might be to acknowledge the possible devaluing of an otherwise informative article from a specialist author by a flawed editorial process – and perhaps even to credit the editors for the fact they changed the headline quickly.”

As is quite clear is you read the text, the cemeteries quote comes from an interview with a research participant who was stressing how Evacuation and forced displacement has killed more people, in his opinion, than living with the constant threat of radiation. Like many others who live near the Exclusion Zone, he believes more people have been killed through forced evacuation than from staying to live with the radiated landscape.

It is a widely held opinion that the stress of becoming an environmental refugee has negatively impacted the lives and health of the hundreds of thousands who were forced to abandon their homes. Something supported by other academic research on other disasters, and from many interviews I have conducted with evacuees.

The revised title, made minutes after I emailed the editor now reads:

“Ukraine’s other crisis: Living in the shadow of Chernobyl – where victims receive just 9p a month and are left to fend for themselves”

This is something I stand by 100%. And I am grateful for The Independent’s swift action on this.

I am guessing your following critique is based on the briefly shown original erroneous title:
“by making unjustified and hyperbolic claims, the whole article becomes discredited: which parts should we believe?”

It is clear (from reading the main text) that the original title is an editorial error. If you believe other parts of the article are in anyway hyperbolic or unjustified I would very much like to hear, as this is a topic I take incredibly seriously. I very strongly dispute for example that what I have written counts as ‘Nuclear Nonsense’. It is based on three years of in-depth ethnographic research with communities throughout Ukraine.

Your assumption that the point of the article was “to cause people to think twice about nuclear power in the UK” is also unfounded. As the author of this article, I can tell you that the point – would you believe it – was to draw attention to the plight of people I have spent years getting to know in Ukraine, who are continuing to suffer from nuclear disaster. Something I believe this article achieves.

You say that the “article [is] seeking to conjure a horrific vision, which is just nonsense, and not true.” I would love to know on what basis you think what I have written is both ‘nonsense’ and ‘not true’?

I am glad this article, for whatever reason, has caused a discussion, as I believe it is an important subject, especially for those involved.

If you are interested further in my research on this subject, I can suggest reading this peer reviewed academic article:

https://www.academia.edu/5632843/A_Visual_Geography_of_Chernobyl_Double_Exposure

Best wishes,

Thom Davies

http://www.thomdavies.com

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