Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

This Headline Won’t Mislead You

Full disclosure: this essay is about headlines, not Holocaust denial. You’ll immediately understand why a “disclosure” is needed here.

Early last week, this headline appeared in the JTA: Swedish education agency recommends exercise that has students argue the Holocaust never happened. Outrageous, no? Like anyone else concerned about Holocaust denial I started reading that article. Here’s the first full sentence: Sweden’s National Agency for Education recommended that teachers should make students try to prove that the Holocaust never happened, as part of a push to help them understand conspiracy theories.

In other words (literally and figuratively!), the headline gives the impression precisely opposite of what this news was all about. Why? To get even the most blasé reader to dive into the article (where, of course, several ads will also appear). Which is what I was suckered into doing, along with many other readers whose time is valuable.

Let’s leave aside whether the Swedish exercise is pedagogically sound (Holocaust denial wasn’t the only topic used for the exercise; another was “the moon landing was staged”). The main issue here is journalistic unprofessionalism and its serious social consequences.

First, some background regarding journalistic practice. Most readers are not aware that news headlines are normally written not by the journalist but by one of the newspaper’s editors. On occasion, when the overly busy editor misses an important word in the body text (e.g., “not”), this can lead to dissonance between the headline and the article’s substance – sometimes humorous and always head-scratching for the reader. Second, in print newspapers (far less so in “e-papers” – given its digitality, quite an anachronistic word!), there’s always a deadline when the paper has to be “put to bed” for the print run to commence – and when a news item arrives at the editor’s desk just a few minutes before that deadline (around midnight), an overly quick read will lead to a headline error. (By the way, the word “deadline” comes from the practice in the late 19th century of reporters phoning in their news – and when the time came for the print run to start, the editors would disconnect the phone “line” that then went “dead,” ergo the “deadline”.)

Third, among their other talents, editors are trained in capturing the reader’s attention with attractive headlines – a critical skill in the contemporary era of news surfeit and the audience’s superficial news scanning. Editors do not usually pen headlines for commentary items (like the Times of Israel’s blogs, columns, essays, etc.) – which is why I personally had to come up with a headline here that would grab your attention, obviously successfully if you’re reading this!

So what is so bad about a misleading headline? First, the fact that many readers merely scan the headlines and don’t bother to read the news items means that they are fed (or feeding themselves) misinformation. In any case, even the best of headlines cannot possibly reflect the complexity of many issues and news reports, but that’s already a problem of reader habits and not any fault of editors.

Second and worse (because it affects every reader – just-the-headline readers as well as those who read the full news report), is the psychological fact that we tend to remember headlines (pithy and to the point) far better than we can recall the substance of the extended news item. Our brains are cluttered enough as it is in our hyper-information world, so that there is mainly “room” for small news chunks, except for the rare news that is immediately and particularly important to us personally.

Third, and worst of all, it has become all too easy to read a headline, get angry (or amused), and quickly forward the link to many others – compounding the problem many times over. There’s a reason that the term “viral” comes from “virus”. Such unthinking news dissemination can lead to serious social illness.

So to return to our JTA headline, what many (perhaps most) readers will be left with by the next day is the memory of “outrageous Swedish policy.” Sweden will survive that specific impression, but not so other individual or group victims of headline innuendo. Indeed, we should all be aware that it is precisely this type of misleading “reportage” that is used by anti-Semites to smear Jews or Israel or their specific supporters (“nefarious” George Soros, anyone?).

What’s to be done? First, I am not suggesting that all news sources act this way. Mistakes will happen, of course, but each reader has to decide which sources can be relied on over the long run, based on experience. An infrequent, weird, or even misleading headline is a given; no one is perfect (the JTA is usually quite reliable). But when it becomes “policy” i.e., a consistent “gotcha!” attempt by the paper, that should be a warning sign to read the news from that medium with a grain of salt (or dollops of it).

Second, readers also should try to become more “media literate.” One of the main aspects of this involves a double process: 1- If the headline suggests some social or political “outrageous” event/saying/phenomenon, then it becomes incumbent to actually read the full news item carefully; 2- if the full report then backs up the headline, check that same news from a second, usually reliable paper or website. Reporters too can be misled by their “exclusive” source, or write the news in tendentious fashion i.e., leaving out other “contradictory” or “explanatory” information. In medicine, we occasionally ask for a second opinion; in reading the news, that should be de rigueur.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book will be published in early 2022 (Springer Nature): VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9789811665257#aboutBook). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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