The Perils Of Headline Journalism


Let’s face it, more people get their news from headlines than they do from the news stories that accompany them; or at the very least, the headlines are what they’re more likely to remember. And that’s a major problem, not just because the headline doesn’t tell the whole story, but because sometimes a headline tells a very different story — inadvertently or deliberately.

We’ve already examined one particularly insidious example of this — the media coverage of the ballot review following the 2000 presidential “election”. All over the country, newspaper headlines — unequivocally and almost unanimously– declared that the review showed Bush was the victor. But if you read the actual reports of this review — even in the same papers — you saw that the truth was very nearly the exact opposite: most of the recount scenarios would have favored Gore — including any full statewide recount.

The media weren’t just looking at Bush’s glass as half full rather than half empty; they were looking at it as 100 percent full when it was actually about 25 percent. When you see something like this, it’s very difficult not to suspect that there is indeed some kind of “vast right-wing conspiracy” in the media.

A comparable case was a headline I remember seeing during the 2012 presidential campaign: “Obama faces uphill battle for reelection”. What the headline didn’t tell you was that his opponents faced a much, much steeper uphill battle to unseat him. Indeed, he had a distinct lead in the polls even at the time that story appeared, and cruised to a comfortable victory.

You may recall that we previously examined a news story in Florida with the following headline:

Man fatally shot during Davie home invasion, police say

But what the article really reported was that the man was actually shot outside the home. Furthermore, he was an acquaintance of the shooter, and had been visiting the shooter inside his home by invitation.  It was neither home invasion nor home defense; and the presence of an AK-47 in the bushes nearby was another strong indication that things were very much not as the headline made them appear. Yet the headline was almost certainly adopted and taken home by the gun culture as one of its smattering of (often dubious) anecdotes “proving” that everyone should be armed to the teeth.

A couple of news stories/ headlines from recent days (as of this writing) bring this problem home with blunt force. One is from The Oregonian, and covers the extensive protests in Portland. The headline reads:

Portland protest deemed ‘riot’ Saturday after fire set in police union building

The impression you get (and are almost certainly intended to get) from that is that protesters en masse wrought extensive havoc and destruction.  But if you bother even to read as far as the first paragraph, you will see this:

A small group of demonstrators lit a fire inside the Portland police union building Saturday, sparking a riot declaration by police, who then advanced on the hundreds who gathered nearby.

Although labeling the troublemakers as “protesters”, which they probably weren’t, the reporter al least mentions that they were a (very) small group, and were separate from the actual protest — upon which nonetheless the police vented their anger. Yet that’s a very different picture from what is suggested by the headline above it.

This kind of journalistic or editorial ineptitude/ malfeasance leaves the American media wide open to tampering and manipulation. And it appears the Russians have taken note, planting phony or greatly exaggerated stories designed to stoke right-wing outrage.


These are very troubling times, for journalism as for everything else. We have a fascist in the White House who lies nonstop. Because of his position, the media feel a responsibility to report whatever he says; but unless they also make note that what he says is a brazen lie, they are doing the public a huge disservice — they are simply giving a dangerous liar a free platform to promote his dangerous lies. And in the interest of trying to appear impartial, they commit bothsidesism by saying that the White House Occupant’s GOP enablers and accomplices are in a “partisan battle” with Democrats who try to hold them accountable.

Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for obtaining complete and accurate information rests on the public. But in order to do that efficiently and effectively, the public needs reliable sources of information to consult. And while in a perfect world, every citizen would do a little digging beyond the headlines, that is not and will not be the case in reality. So media outlets that wanted to take seriously their supposed duty of enlightening the public would be a little more judicious about their headlines.

One comment

  1. I’m glad you commented about the Bible burning video in Portland. Since the first time we Democrats heard the story, mainstream sources had already debunked most of the claims about it–as well as other cases, which were also examined by the FBI,, and other mainstream sources should all be given the credit for a job well done.

    Republicans know their only hope is to slander the characters of Biden and Harris, so there will likely be many more disgusting manufactured conspiracy theories invented to accomplish that. These stories often go viral because people want to believe them before they are checked out after appearing on suspicious website like those who still publish conservative ill will stories, and articles about the big bad Obama’s,(For God’s sake)! Did you ever hear the GOP talking about what policies of Biden’s they might debunk–and in in what way? Nope, the GOP has declared a scorched Earth policy. (Sorry about the unintended pun). But they are now arming themselves with new conspiracy theories after consulting with their spin doctors–instead of consulting with real scientists about such foolish and utter crap!

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