Of course, Paul Dacre is not really a kitten killer. I’ve made that up. Newspapers such as Dacre’s Daily Mail though, and I’m not making this bit up, are allowed to print pretty much any headline they like. As long as they make clear at some point that the headline is untrue. Perhaps in, say, paragraph 19 of the article.
This is problematic. Not everyone will read the whole article. A few will read right to the end, some will look at the pictures and maybe read the first couple of paragraphs. But everyone will have been exposed to the headline.
The Poynter Institute found that online participants read an average of 77 percent of story text they chose to read; broadsheet participants read an average of 62 percent of stories they selected; and tabloid participants read an average of 57 percent. They also note that readers described as ‘scanners’ viewed headlines and other page display elements without reading much text. It’s clear that some people might be influenced by a headline without ever reading the attached article.
Here is an image showing a recent headline in The Times. It claims that Christianity is “on the rack as judge bans public prayer”. Making the claim that Christinity is “on the rack” on the basis of a judgement on the very specific issue of making prayers part of the official business of a council meeting seems silly to me. The issue of whether the judge has banned public prayer is not quite so subjective. I think that the claim that he has done so is just as silly as the hyperbolic “on the rack claim”, but is also demonstrably incorrect. There is a PDF of the judgement here. It’s quite clear that the judge has not banned public prayer as was claimed by the headline in The Times. Not only has the judge not banned public prayer, he hasn’t even banned prayer at council meetings. The Bideford Councillors may still pray, as long as they do so before the official business begins. Here’s a quote:
I think it important that the narrow scope of the issue before me be explained. The issue is solely about whether prayers can be said as a part of the formal business transacted by the Council at a meeting to which all Councillors are summoned. It is quite wrong for the Defendant to suggest that the Claimants would be introducing a bar on acts of worship before the meeting, thus hindering the exercise by Councillors who wished to pray of their right to do so.
While the judge thought it important that the narrow scope of the issue be explained, the Daily Mail were not keen on doing so in the headline or sub-headlines. ‘Christianity under attack‘, wailed the headline (the banner and URL are worse – stating the untruth “Councils are BANNED from saying prayers before meetings”). Sub-headlines made the claim “Town hall prayers banned”, referred to an assault on Britain’s cultural heritage, and made references to prayers at Parliament and hospital and forces chaplains being in line to be “outlawed” (despite the judgement being made on the basis of section 111 of the Local Government Act, which does not apply to Parliament or chaplains). By the third paragraph, the Mail had pointed out that what had actually been outlawed was putting prayers on the formal agenda. By the Daily Mail’s usual standards, this wasn’t actually all that bad. Although the bit where they complained about Christians not being allowed to discriminate against gays did make them look like bigoted fools.
Here are some examples of the Mail printing misleading headlines: Facebook users ‘are insecure, narcissistic and have low self-esteem’; and 1.6m benefits claimants have never had a job ‘because it does not pay to work’.
The first headline is for an article based on research that showed that subjects who scored higher on a narcissism test checked their Facebook pages more often each day than those who did not – the headline claim that Facebook users are insecure and narcissistic with low self-esteem is not supported by the research. This is something that the Mail simply made up.
The second headline is worse. It refers to 1.6 million benefits claimants and claims that their reason for never having worked was because “it does not pay” to do so. The headline should have referred to individuals who have never worked, not benefits claimaints and it should not have made the claim about their reasons for not working. Here’s Full Fact on the reporting of the research. Here’s a PDF of the report that the article and headline are based on: link. It is a three page report consisting of a title page, a table, and some notes. It doesn’t take long to read. The notes make it quite clear that the 1.6 million are individuals who have never worked (rather than benefits claimants) and says nothing of their reasons for never having worked, pointing out that such information is unavailable. Here’s exactly what it says, in the second of five notes:
Information is not available on the reasons why an individual has never worked. For example some of these individuals may have disabilities or caring responsibilities, or have partners who work. Likewise, some will be claiming state benefits and some will not.
What can be done about misleading headlines in the English press? Well, there’s no point complaining to the PCC, who told this blogger:
The Commission made clear that it considers headlines in the context of the article as a whole rather than as a standalone statement.
So, as far as the PCC is concerned, newspapers are free to print headlines which are misleading or inaccurate as long as there’s something in the article itself that contradicts the headline. This is the regulatory body that claims to “keep industry standards high” on their front page.
[Edit, 14/2/12 – this blogger has argued that my summary of the PCC’s judgement in this case is unfair.]
There’s a paper here about a small study that found that a medium-sized headline can significantly damage a reputation, regardless of what the article states.
Libel fans might remember Charleston v News Group Newspapers, which involved two actors from Neighbours complaining unsuccessfully about a headline and images in a News of the World article. Despite the article being deemed “deeply offensive and insulting” and “gutter journalism” the appeal failed, with Lord Bridge pointing out that the Lords “are not concerned to pronounce on any question of journalistic ethics”. Which is fine – questions of journalistic ethics should be dealt with by the PCC. Or, even better, a press regulator that isn’t toothless and useless. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been talking about tougher regulation, credible punishment of newspapers that step out of line, and a regulator “fully independent from newspaper proprietors and current newspaper editors”. It will be interesting to see what Hunt considers to be “credible punishment” in action.
If you want to read the reasoning of a blogger who is unconvinced that the risk of headlines misleading casual readers should lead to regulatory intervention, then click here.
Here is Neurobonkers on the Daily Mail’s headlines misrepresenting reality.