What you need to know:
- What interests us are headlines that are more emotive and sensational than informational.
- Then there are others that are apparently intended to capture your emotions or influence what you think of the story.
Newspaper headlines are couched in as few words as possible, leaving the reader to expand on their import. They are also the first — and in some cases the only — thing one reads in a story. So it’s important to get them right, and to read them right, especially at this time when emotive and sensational headlines are likely to dominate media coverage of the political scene.
Richard Gizbert, presenter of Aljazeera’s media programme The Listening Post, underlines the importance of headlines in influencing what people read and think about the stories. He said, “There is a legendary quotation, legendary in that it may well be fictional, attributed to a newspaper magnate, which goes something like this: When asked why his newspaper did not publish editorials, opinion pieces in order to further his political agenda, he apparently replied: Who needs editorials? I have headlines.
“A well-written headline can move readers, enticing them to keep reading. It provides a frame for the story, telling you in just a few words what is important and why. Headlines have evolved from their early days late in the 19th Century, growing bolder as the years pass and, in this digital age, they have been reworked, written in a way that encourages readers to share them, pass them on and many of us do without even reading the article in question.”
In many cases, emotive and sensational headlines are meant to sell a certain point of view. When Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in Pakistan, the Philadelphia Daily News announced on May 2, 2011, the news with the headline: “We Got the Bastard!”
What interests us are headlines that are more emotive and sensational than informational. There are those that are apparently intended to sell the paper or, in the case of online content, to lure you into clicking.
Then there are others that are apparently intended to capture your emotions or influence what you think of the story. What they have in common is that they are more emotive than informational. In many cases, they’re all intended to grab eyeballs, increase the number of clicks or sell more newspapers.
Every week or so, I receive complaints about headlines. Readers complain about misleading, exaggerated, inaccurate and false headlines. Evans Imbuki, for instance, complained about a front page headline in last Friday’s Daily Nation, “How Ruto pushed Nasa into a corner”, which he thinks was misleading.
“A very juicy headline complete with a picture of the DP,” he says. “However, on reading the entire piece, I could not relate anything to the headline. In fact, I was left confused on whether the story was actually meant to be about Isaac Ruto, the first governor of Bomet County. The headline leaves a lot to be desired, and my conclusion is that it was meant to shore up sales!”
John Komira complains about last Saturday Nation’s front page headline, “Court gives nod to postpone election”. He asks: “How can a ruling that is not binding on Kenyan courts be given such prominence? Any intelligent reader would notice that, lately, your reporting and news analysis is lopsided.”
There’s usually no one explanation, or clear resolution, of such complaints because headlines can be read differently by different people, depending on the context. How would you, for example, react to the following headlines from the Nation: “Smiling with angels” (announcing the death of Bomet Governor Joyce Laboso in July 2019), “How Mwilu finally fell”, “In Uhuru State House, a goose is cooking” and “Wanted: White husband, blacks please keep off”?
The NMG editorial policy requires editors to be extra careful in writing headlines. They’re required to avoid sensational, provocative and alarming headlines. “Constant care is taken to ensure that headlines accurately reflect the underlying theme and tone of the article/story they are based on,” the policy states. “Headlines and (TV) scrolls should not exaggerate, over-simplify or distort the facts.”
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