Everything you need to know about … headlines!

There used to be a time when journalism was a profession. In the information age, however, the production and consumption of public media has become a long gone art. Data streams chaotically and continuously from all directions through the social networks — Facebook, Witter, Slacks, SMS — and it is a mystery how anyone can distill a meaningful signal from the noise. One might rather call it the mis-information age.

One can also write a volume, critiquing the sloppiness in today’s written content. For this post, let us focus right at the start; headlines. The purpose of a headline is to serve as a useful, succinct summary for the content of an article.

Many headlines on the web are instead extremely predictable, repetitive, and often appear to be pulled right out of a book called “Click Bait 101”. I recently browsed through the front page of Google News, and selected an assortment of representative headlines that echo some of the most recurring motifs.

Everything you need to know about …

These articles are a hold-my-hand guide through a dangerously oversimplified presentation of some complex issue. They usually receive very high number of comments and page views. I attribute most the blame for the success of this headline to the intellectual laziness of readers, who wish to quickly be knowledgeable and form opinions about a topic that society agrees is important.

It is also troubling that the writer is confident that they are telling you “everything you need to know about…” It would be more honest and accurate to rephrase as “some things we want you to know about…” Here are some examples.

  • Everything You Need to Know About Britain’s New Prime Minister. ABC
  • Everything You Need to Know About K2, the Drug Linked to Mass Overdose. NBC
  • Everything You Need to Know About Today’s GOP Rules Committee Meeting. ABC
  • Everything you need to know about the net neutrality debate in India. India Times
  • Everything you need to know about Theresa May’s Brexit nightmare in five minutes. Politics UK

The last one is the exemplar — promising a comprehensive coverage of the Brexit in five minutes of your valuable time.

[someone] just did [something shocking]!

Intended for maximum shock and urgency. The [something shocking] event is typically a straight-out-deception of something trivial. The primary purpose of the headline is rather to make a statement about, or build a persona for, the [someone]. Examples:

  • Bernie Sanders Just Made Jill Stein The Most Powerful Woman In American Politics. Huffington Post
  • The FDA Just Declared War on Cookie Dough. Smithsonian
  • Putin Just Created His Own Personal Army. Daily Caller
  • Vladimir Putin just invited Kim Jong Un to visit Russia. Really. Washington Post

Even though a given reader may not read much about Putin, glancing through enough headlines like these work to build the negative, dictatorial character that is widespread in the West today. And who has the remotest idea about who is Jill Stein? Maybe she is too busy working in the Earth’s core and shifting tectonic plates…

[Yes, No, Sorry], …

These headlines sound like bitter responses in an argument on a Youtube comment forum. For each of these examples, consider how much more readable and professional the title would be, without the silly bolded words.

  • No, Bernie Sanders Did Not Sell Out by Endorsing Hillary Clinton — Just the Opposite. Forward
  • Sorry, You’re Just Going To Have to Save More Money.​ Wall St. Journal
  • Sorry 538, La Taqueria is delicious — but it’s also fatally flawed.​ Vox
  • Yes, Clinton is sinking in the polls. No, you should not panic. Here’s why.​ Washington Post

Some similar prefixes to look out for the future are “Right,” and “Wait,”. It is pretty surprising they have not been picked up already.

Conclusion

The next time you come across a headline along these lines, think about why the writer chose that particular pattern, what emotional or intellectual reaction they are trying to evoke, and how it contributes to their propaganda.

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