Monday, January 10, 2011

Watch Your Hed

Headlines and ledes grab attention, and are often lies.

This is, of course, a follow-up to the "Update" segment of my previous post, in which I note that Fox News changed a headline from an inflammatory one to a less inflammatory one. Today's post is about why that sort of behavior is too little, too late.

A couple of posts ago, I talked about the "Information Problem", or how the surplus of content affects the way humanity makes decisions. I divided print and web material into three categories: content (less relevant, truth value unassignable), information (more relevant, but pre-interpreted) and data (most relevant, but difficult to understand without interpretation). News reporting, in general, should fit squarely into the "information" category; it should be pre-interpreted data reported from primary sources, and in general, should be unimpeachably true.

Now, that isn't always the case, and there are ways to report things that makes it appears as though the universe, not the medium, has a bias for or against a certain position. And I've written about that too. That needs to be taken care of, but in the end, each news user is going to have to strip bias from news. What's more devious, though, is the headline.

In a content economy, attention is currency. You can never make quick money by printing just the facts, reliably, and within a reasonable timeframe, even though that might be the most sustainable position. You're generally going to want to print news biased toward an audience, report on events that interest that audience, ignore things that don't interest the audience, and try to scoop everyone else all the time, even if you have unreliable or incomplete facts.

Even if you follow that formula, though, you still need to advertise. And the only advertisement that works on a news aggregator is the headline (and the lede, on occasion). So you have to make it count. In the end, if you make a statement that's shocking, you're more likely to get hits. It has been like this from the beginning of printed news. What's different in the aggregated news / 24-hour cable news ticker world is that far more headlines are read than articles, streaming at us as they do.

Unfortunately, shocking headlines are often a little bit misleading (or more than a little bit). This wasn't so much a problem before the Information Age, but now, each headline could easily be perceived as a tiny, unimpeachable fact. Which, of course, is inaccurate, and leads to misconstructed worldviews. Which messes with systems based on preferences and beliefs.

So, save the economy just a little bit, and try not to lie in your headline, even if you fix it in the article, or retract it later.

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