We’ve all seen sensational headlines. Whether you find them through Twitter or via a WhatsApp group, headlines such as, “How Scientists got Climate Change So Wrong” (yes, that is a real opinion piece published in 2019 by The New York Times), are designed to provoke a strong emotional reaction in the reader and leave them with a false impression of reality. And while sensationalism in journalism is not new, the ongoing infodemic combined with declining perceptions of trust in news media and the cementing of social media users into echo chambers, creates a perfect storm in which headlining perpetuates misinformation. In this first of a two-part series, I’ll define the phenomenon, explain how headlining differs from “fake news,” and discuss five ways to spot and not fall victim to headlining.

obi-onyeador-qXfD_nG4j-U-unsplash.jpg Photo credit: Unsplash, Obi Onyeador

In 2016, researchers from Columbia University and the French National Institute published a study on how often readers click on links shared via Twitter, Youtube, and other platforms. They found that about six out of 10 people share a link without ever actually opening it; they simply read the headline and passed it along. Now, when the headline is “’Humpback comeback’: Whale researchers say species making dramatic return to B.C. waters” (as CTV News in Vancouver published in June), the uncritical sharing of this news isn’t so bad. After all, the headline tells you everything you need to know, though it spares the heartwarming details of “Big Mama,” the pioneering whale mom responsible for the population increase. However, other headlines such as, “Plant-based foods are actually bad for your health, another study warns,” from FarmWeekly, are less benign. In this example, if you do not click on the link and read about how new research is showing that a plant-based diet based on processed foods is unhealthy, you may walk away with the impression that eating your greens is actually bad for you (plot twist: it’s not). The uncritical sharing of a sensational headline or passing along of false information without reading the article first is known as “headlining.”

Headlining is not fake news. Though the two phenomena overlap in spreading misinformation and inaccuracies, there are two core differences:

  1. Where fake news tries to pass on false or fabricated information as legitimate by, for example, linking to research institutions in the article, headlining relies on a sensational, attention-grabbing title that pulls on or attacks one’s core beliefs to evoke a strong emotional appeal in the reader.

  2. While fake news can use headlining, it doesn’t need to. For instance, deepfakes are manipulated audiovisual media that try to edit an individual’s words or mannerisms. One more lighthearted example of this is the @deeptomcruise TikTok account where a young man who looks remarkably like Tom Cruise pretends to be the actor doing various everyday activities. And while this account clearly states that it is a parody, most deepfakes are difficult to spot and, when the target is a government official or world leader, have an immense impact on their audience. Headlining, on the other hand, is much more narrow in its application: the intention is for the headline is to tell the reader everything they need to know regardless of whether it is true.

Headlining is thus a dangerous conduit for mis- and disinformation because it contains a strong emotional appeal and a “complete” picture of a current event in just a few words. And when we’re all juggling work, family, the ongoing pandemic, whatever time-consuming tasks the day brings, getting this quick bit of news via a headline is highly appealing.

What Can We to Stop Falling Victim to Headlining?

  1. Take a deep breath: Seriously! Take a deep breath in… and out… are you clenching your jaw? Stop that! Headlining as a phenomenon relies on your belief in the sensational. Research by Lisa Fazio of Vanderbilt University suggests that taking a moment to pause and think about whether that headline contains false information can reduce shares of mis- and disinformation. If you read a headline that makes you excited, frustrated, or want to fall into a well of climate despair, pause and ask yourself, does this sound too good or too awful to be true?

  2. Check your biases: Social media echo chambers are incredibly powerful in shaping our beliefs. On Twitter, I know that if I see a headline that affirms my own beliefs and comes from a news source I trust (whether from an institution or a peer), I am much more likely to share it as fact. And I’m not alone in this. When we find ourselves in this position, it is OK, and even encouraged, to question the credibility of an article that affirms your beliefs.

  3. Read the article: This one is deceptively simple. It’s one thing to suggest reading the article and forming your own opinion, but it’s another to have the time and energy to actually read it. My advice? Carve out time to find what works for you. For example, I love daily news roundup podcasts that provide sources in the episode description (shout out to What A Day by Crooked Media!). Other people gravitate toward newsletters or articles that provide a summary at the top. Allow yourself the opportunity to form your own opinion of the facts presented.

  4. Check the source: In this brilliant post on disinformation and dating apps, my colleague Inta Plostins recommends that you “don’t believe everything you read” on a person’s dating profile. She also aptly says this extends to non-dating app situations, and lo and behold, here we are! When you see a sensational headline, ask yourself, is this a source I trust? Does the author cite their sources? Do they embed links to research in the article? Just like on a dating app, not backing up your claims is a red flag.

  5. Cross-reference: This one, unfortunately, does take a bit of time. When you see a sensational headline, check what other news platforms are saying about this? The time you spend examining various sources and opinions will help you form a more complete picture of the subject. And trust me, it’s worth it!

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading! I hope this article has helped you better understand what headlining is and given you the tools to combat it. In part two of this series, I’ll look at communities that have lower media literacy and fewer digital natives to understand the impact headlining has on the communities and the development practitioners seeking to enhance media literacy skills.