Friday, 14 January 2011

The art of headlines

Over the past few weeks, the press has managed to get a ton of headlines out of mass animal die-offs. Birds, fish...there have been several incidents widely reported from across the world where a couple of hundred critters are found dead somewhere, and this has been great fun for conspiracy theorists, armchair occultists and people who just wish something more interesting was going on than by-elections and cuts.

Today's Mail reports another such incident with a typically dramatic headline, pleading desperately with the authorities to stop covering shit up and tell us The Truth, dammit! "Now 300 dead birds fall from the sky in Alabama (how much longer can scientists keep saying this is normal?)", it seems to yell. Yeah, Mr Science Guy, how long are you gonna keep bullshitting us and admit it's time to start stocking up on shotguns and fortifying our basements?

The strange part is, though, the article is...actually fairly sensible. Y'know, for the Mail, I mean. Early in the piece, an entirely rational, non-apocalyptic, and deeply mundane explanation is offered for this particular incident:
It appears that the birds died of blunt force trauma - possibly from being hit by a truck, wildlife biologist Bill Gates told local news station WAFF
The article goes on to give a similar explanation for a recent incident in California. Flock of birds hit by truck. Not, perhaps, the start of the Rapture. DAILY MAIL REPORTER briefly mentions the excitement about the apparent spate of incidents, but then punctures such giddiness with a note of skepticism:
The reality, say biologists, is that these mass die-offs happen all the time and usually are unrelated.

Federal records show they happen on average every other day somewhere in North America. Usually, we don't notice them and don't try to link them to each other.

Indeed, most of the article is a pretty decent, if lightweight, debunking of the fuss around these animal deaths; the bottom line being that these things have always and will always happen, and we're just reporting them all of a sudden which makes it look like more. It's a little reminiscent of the Bridgend suicides, which were not particularly unusual statistically speaking but ended up portrayed as a massive sinister suicide pact. Or indeed the recent Implanon contraceptive jab story, where out-of-context absolute figures gave the impression that a massive amount of failures were occurring when in fact the failure rate was very low.

So what of that title? As we know, it's usually a sub-editor or someone other than the author who adds the title. If you'd given this article a title along the lines of "Animal deaths 'not unusual', say scientists", it would have made a lot more sense in the context of the article. But would people have read it? We live in an age of short attention spans where a shouty headline is what's needed to get hits, even if it's wildly misleading. I suppose the thing that bothers me about this case is that it's not just sensationalism; the headline seems to actively try and scorn the relatively sensible article beneath it in the name of cheap publicity. The person who wrote the article seems to think it's perfectly reasonable that "scientists keep saying this is normal", yet that ridiculous headline wants you to click on the article in the expectation finding that something deeper, something weirder, something perhaps conspiratorial or apocalyptic is going on. Why, I can only speculate, but it would hardly be surprising if the headline was purely designed to get a fairly mundane story Tweeted and Facebooked around the world by people who haven't really got any desire to read past the headline.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I've always worked on the assumption that the headline writers are not good enough to be journalists. Less intelligent, no great writing ability. Not always saying much I know, but it explains a lot.

  3. Some headline writers, in the past, have been extremely clever - the subs desk is an important part of any newspaper production.

    However, one of the things that has started to happen over the last few years is that subs desks (where they're still retained) have been told that SEO is king.

    Headlines, especially on the web, are all too often written now not with the aim of getting the message across to the reader in a way that can be clever, witty and humorous too, but with the aim of ensuring the best possible ranking in search engines.

    I've even seen PR people suggest that they use SEO not just for the headlines, but for some of the text of their press releases, which strikes me as absolutely ghastly.

    A lot of the media (I'm a journalist, for IT titles, myself) is seriously smitten with SEO. Personally, I think that taken to excess, it means that people are writing headlines designed to interest an algorithm, rather than actual readers, and that in itself is surely a type of NewSpeak.

  4. Mất ngủ là bệnh phổ biến hiện nay và bất cứ ai cũng có thể mắc phải và những bà bầu cũng không thoát khỏi cảnh bị bệnh mất ngủ . mất ngủ có ảnh hưởng đến thai nhi không là câu hỏi được nhiều người hỏi. Vậy nguyên nhân mất ngủ khi mang thaihay buồn ngủ là bệnh gì. Vậy có cách chữa bệnh mất ngủ hiệu quả nhất , cách trị chứng mất ngủ hiệu quả và an toàn nhất . Cùng đi tìm hiểu nhé.