Saturday, July 04, 2009

The headline effect

In Canadian print journalism, probably the single most important real estate is the front page of the Saturday Globe and Mail. Today's lead article was about the plight of Pakistani women fleeing the Swat valley. In the print issue, the headline was "Between Fear and Freedom", with a secondary headline stating that "The Taliban have driven almost a million women and children out of their homes in the Swat valley." The article itself, by Stephanie Nolen, describes it differently: "Nearly a million Pakistani women have had to flee ... as the government intensifies a military operation against Islamist militants."

No doubt the agonizing decision to leave behind one's home is made for various reasons. Nolen writes: "The women arrive here with their families, running from Taliban aggression or aerial and ground attacks from the Pakistani military – or both." So why does the headline mention only the Taliban?

In a journal article titled How Bias Shapes the News [pdf], Barbie Zelizer and co-authors noted that "Headlines highlight the main point of the coverage, privileging certain interpretations of an event over others." The importance of headlines has been studied empirically. In a study by Percy Tannenbaum published in 1953 ("The Effects of Headlines on the Interpretation of News Stories", Journalism Quarterly, vol 30: 189-97), students were given a fictitious newspaper story about a homicide trial with different headlines. The slant of the headline was significantly associated with whether students believed the accused to be guilty or not. F. T. Marquez argued (The Journal of Communication, 1980, vol 30: 30-36.) that "Many newspaper readers may read only headlines and thus may form their opinions of the day’s events based on those headlines alone."

As I understand it, newspaper headlines are typically not written by the journalists who write the articles. Jazzed-up headlines may serve to excite interest and sell more newspapers. But they may distort the content of the articles, and—whether consciously or unconsciously—inject ideological bias.

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