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This Headline Is Trying to Manipulate You, And It’s Working

Bad headlines stick with you, even if you read the story

(Ted Spiegel/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

The headline is your first impression of an article. It's supposed to give you an idea about what you're about to read. It also frames the story and sets the tone for how the text that follows comes across. And as new research suggests, ideas planted by a headline can be hard to shake—even if the rest of the article doesn't support it.

Though Upworthy and other similar sites are often accused of taking the headline set-up too far, by telling you explicitly what to think and feel—“Watch This Little Bit Of History, And Then Scream Loudly Into A Pillow <— 'Cause You're Angry” (that's an actual headline)—headlines do shape your perceptions. If the headline tells you to be angry, even implicitly, you might just listen.

Even if an article is packed full of history, context and caveats, it's hard to undo the damage of a misleading headline. That's one of the take-aways from a new study that experimentally tested the effect of headlines on people's thoughts. The exact same article topped with a different headline, says Fast Company, can skew people's understanding of it:

[T]he big problem with misleading headlines is that they're just that—misleading, as opposed to downright wrong. Correcting misinformation requires a lot of mental work. People are perfectly capable of doing that work once they recognize the need, but in the case of misleading headlines, that need isn't always clear.

This is ignoring, for a moment, the altogether too real fact that some people only read the headline (as NPR showed last April Fools with a hilarious prank). Even if you read the whole article, the frame of the headline can still skew your way you think about what you read.

“[T]he biggest takeaway,” writes Fast Company, “is that media organizations leave an impression on a story before the very first word is read, based on their reputation and authority alone.”

The fact that an editor chooses to highlight a certain detail in a headline suggests to some readers that this detail carries more importance than all the others in a story. Irrelevant as this framing might seem, especially if the story that follows is fair and clear, such headlines could have a large and lasting impact on a reader's thoughts and decisions.

Headline writing is a tricky business. Nearly every story in the world is more complex than can be packed up in a few words, and most people responsible for their creation take the work seriously. But whether deliberately or accidentally, writers' and editors' biases invariably seep in to their work. Being an avid media consumer, then, means being a responsible reader, and understanding the outsized sway of headlines is a big part of that.

About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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