The front page of the January 5 Daily Nation.
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Most people don’t read beyond the headline and here are the dangers

The front page of the January 5 Daily Nation.

Congratulations for reading past the headline of this article. You are one of the few people who read past headlines.

Research shows that 80 per cent of people stop after reading the headline or a few lines of the story. They get most, if not all, of their news from headlines only.

Most people do not read the details of a story; they just skim the headlines and a few lines of the story. This can be dangerous as a headline is not the story itself. A headline does not contain the complete truth.

But you will find there are people who hold conversations on an issue after only reading the headline. This is dangerous because the facts of a story are in the body of the story, not the headline.

If you read only the headline you take away only what the headline says and that may not be the story. If you stop at the headline, it means your knowledge of the article is limited, or even erroneous.

You must read beyond the headline to get the truthfulness of the story. You can only understand the news by reading the contents of the story, not just the headline.

Headlines have two broad functions – to summarise or highlight certain aspects of the story, and to attract the attention of the reader.

But in the process of carrying out those functions, headlines can be inaccurate or misleading. Those who read past the headlines know that sometimes headlines are not supported by the stories below them.

We call such headlines edlines, i.e. headlines written by the editor promising the reader things that are actually not in the story. Often, edlines are exaggerations, inaccuracies or contradictions, hiding in plain view.

Headlines that promise what a story does not deliver are common. Sometimes it is a question of not delivering enough. An example of this is last Friday’s Daily Nation front-page headline “Why court extended housing levy order.”

Njoroge Waweru wrote to complain. “I bought the newspaper when I saw the headline starting with ‘Why,’” he says. “I anxiously expected to read the reasons why the Court of Appeal judges decided to allow the Government to continue collecting the housing levy.

“But when I turn to the main story on page 4, I only get one sentence attributed to the judges: ‘In the meantime, the status quo obtaining as of today shall be maintained until the delivery of the ruling’. The entire story on pages 4-5, which ensue from the bold and curious headline on page one, does not contain anything else the judges said.

“We are at a time that the Judiciary is increasingly besieged by being threatened by none other than the President. People are more anxious than ever to be informed about the judgements coming from the courts. It is from these judgements that Kenyans will know whether the courts have thrown in the towel and succumbed to Executive.”

There are many headlines that are misleading. One good example this week is “Father Josiah Asa K’Okal: Priest from Siaya who fought Venezuelan drug barons and paid the ultimate price” (Nation.Africa, January 7, 2024). The story did not contain any information that Fr K’Okal, a missionary in Venezuela, was killed by drug barons.

The only reference to drug barons was a statement from his cousin in Kenya, Steve Owiti, who is quoted saying that he suspects foul play because Fr K’Okal “tirelessly fought the drug barons in the South American country.”

Mr Owiti goes on to say, “This looks like there was a clearly orchestrated scheme to eliminate him. We have not been told of whether there was a suicide note while all his documents and phone were found left in the house.”

The story says his body was discovered by police officers hanging on a mango tree and they concluded that it was a suicide case. TheDaily Nation carried a more accurate headline, “Mystery over death of Kenyan missionary.” So did The EastAfrican.

While edlines are common, the NMG editorial policy is categorial regarding the editor’s professional obligation to accuracy in headline writing. It says constant care must be taken to ensure headlines accurately reflect the theme and tone of the story.


- The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected]. Call or text 0721989264