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Humble headline? No, it’s a weapon for media, Facebook, Google, your WhatsApp group

We have a problem. Most of us Indians don’t read articles beyond the headline and we are having a tough time distinguishing report and opinion.

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Most people have an above-average number of arms.’

Read this headline, and then read it again. It’s a mathematical fact, but you’ll still be confused.

This is how it works. The average number of arms is always lesser than two because some people don’t have hands or are amputated. So, by default, if you have two arms, that’s above average.

This is also why you must always click on an article and not just read the headline. Increasingly, not just Indians, but people around the world are reading and sharing articles without having read even the first or last line of it. Article links are shared on everything and everyone from Narendra Modi to ‘love jihad’, coronavirus to US election, without checking if the story is brand new or five years old, if the headline accurately represents the story, and most importantly, if the article is a news report, a rambling blog, or a paid advertisement. And that’s dangerous.

All of us like to blame the irreversible breaking down of politics and journalism as the bane of our times. We blame Facebook, fake news, alt-truth, and WhatsApp forwards for the death of nuance in our conversations. Or what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls ‘narrative collapse’ in our public debate. But how would you feel if I were to tell you that you can trace most of our problems back to that humble headline and how we read it? Not so humble anymore, in fact, it is now weaponised beyond recognition by the media, Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, and algorithmic political parties.

The floating headlines clamouring for our attention create two main problems. One, it blunts our ability to differentiate between news and opinion, report and editorial, thereby leading to the sharing of half-truths and fake news. And two, it adds to our biases, polarises us, and impacts our already short attention span in the age of social media.

Also read: More Indian journalists prefer to tweet than go on the field to report — it suits the govt

You can’t fit the world in 100 characters

In any digital newsroom, headlines are usually decided based on three things: the subject, the novelty factor, and keywords. How best can I fit the essence of this article in less than 100 characters? It’s safe to say, all the ifs and buts of the article won’t make it to the headline. And that’s not a bad thing, it’s not an academic paper. As long as you get the facts right.

But facts can be confusing when it comes to reading the news on your phone, tablet, or computer. Or the facts may be deliberately misleading to get a click out of you.

When you open a print newspaper in your hands, you know exactly where to find everything. You know where the city page will be, the Bollywood gossip will be, the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon will be, the opinion page will be, where the sports page will be, and even where the classified ads will be. That all went up in the air when the mobile phone became our news reading device of choice, and sharing became consumption.

Now, it led to a problem.

You couldn’t tell if what you were reading was an editorial (the view/stand taken by a media house), a report (an objective story by a reporter of the media house), an opinion (a particular subjective view taken by a columnist or a guest writer), or an analysis (for instance, a political take on emerging voting trends). And the headline didn’t tell you enough.

Study after study has shown that readers are missing the clues that categorise articles published online.

According to the American Press Institute, “Only 43 percent of people said they could easily sort news from opinion on these news websites or social platforms.” Why? Because they all look the same — from the template to the link when posted on Facebook — and readers miss subtle cues. The study also points out, “Many people said that news reporting they see seems closer to commentary than just the facts (42 percent).”

What you are reading now on this page is a ‘PoV’ – point of view – and it comes under ThePrint’s Opinion section. Scroll to the top of the page, and above the headline, you’ll see the category marked. While reading it, you’ll also realise that I am writing in the first person, opining, and giving you a view. At the bottom of the page, you’ll see my description or a ‘views are personal’ disclaimer, something you won’t find in a report. And I am neither a weekly columnist, nor a guest writer.

In fact, one of the demands against the controversial opinion article by US Senator Tom Cotton, which said ‘send in the troops’ at the height of the #BlackLivesMatter protests in June, was that The New York Times should have put in “factual corrections and an editor’s note explaining what was wrong with the essay” in the published article.

Let’s be honest, most of us don’t read beyond headlines. We click only a select few articles, if we have the time. We are all guilty of it – sharing without caring, forwarding an article just based on a headline. Without verifying what we are sending, whether it’s current, and whether or not it’s a half-truth (because you can’t fit the world in your title), or a clickbait (when a catchy headline has nothing to do with its contents). And that points to our second problem.

Also read: AI is already putting journalists out of job. But there will never be AI Arnab or Ravish

Charge of the headline brigade

Very often, someone will scream at you through their limited Twitter characters because of the headline of an article you wrote or shared. I call this the charge of the headline brigade.

If I write an opinion article with a headline that says: ‘The idea of India is changing 180-degrees in the Modi era’, I will be called an ‘anti-national’, ‘Leftie liberal’, or ‘Nehru lover’ by those who haven’t even read the article. No matter if I have praised Modi in the article or mourned the era.

Take for example the whole circus with actor Deepika Padukone, drugs, and the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB). Most media houses, including Hindustan Times and Republic, ran a story that said Padukone’s husband Ranveer Singh had requested the NCB for permission to be present with her during her probe. The NCB denied this, but very few media houses have since changed their headline, some adding just a line about the update in the article. And let’s be frank, as a reader, we don’t fact-check every news story.

Remember when an NDTV news alert said, ‘Tanishq store attacked in Gujarat’s Gandhidham, manager forced to write apology note amid row over ad’. Most of us immediately shared it thinking vandalism had occurred in the aftermath of the Tanishq ad on interfaith marriages. Turns out, that headline was misleading. The store had been targeted, but not physically attacked. Power of a single word in a headline.

Today, social media has polarised us more than ever before. Whatever cracks and faults existed in society before have been made into visible pixels in the digital world. You are either for or against the world. You are a Republican or a Democrat, you are a climate change activist or denier, you are a Modi supporter or a Gandhi family agent. Just as computer language is binary, so have our thoughts become. And social media algorithms will show you mostly the news you want to see, the opinion you want to hear. The headline you will click on, the one you will react to.

A headline can polarise you in an instant. More dangerously, it can get accepted as the whole truth because it adheres to what we think. This is called confirmation bias. And it happens with Left, Right, Centre and people of all political leanings. Yes, even the ‘unbiased’ apolitical ones. Constant information loops and updates have shrunk our attention span. So, whatever is easy for our pre-wired brains to accept, is consumed and digested. Whatever is nuanced, contradictory, challenging, is thrown out. Or trolled.

‘India’s PM has made the country the cleanest in the world’ is shared over and over again because it confirms what many feel.

‘Famous Indian author says she is not upper caste’ is shared over and over again because it confirms what many others feel.

Both may be untrue. Both may be an opinion. Both may have the whole story in the article – with the ifs and buts. But are Indians actually reading?

Views are personal.

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  1. Internet has created abundance of information. It’s a lever for large section of society, but at the same time over supply has diminished the value of it.

    In the era before internet when information was limited availability, each word of news paper was precious and took whole day to consume before getting supply next day.

    Technology has also reduced the attention span. There are 10s of other notifications blinking on the screen, desperate to grab the eyeball of the reader.

    Who cares for depth these days in the eta of instant gratification, still responsibility lies on individual to be very careful before pressing forward button.

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