Monday, November 24, 2008

The Power — and Truth — of Headlines

It has always been my philosophy that, if you want to do a fast read of any media channel, you don’t have to read the body of an article; the headline will tell you a lot regarding trends, content and even future direction.

I do admit that sometimes there can be a negative headline that has positive body copy or the reverse, but that is rare. It typically occurs when there is an attention-getting point within the story and usually does not reflect the bulk of the story.

Here is an assortment of headlines I found in The New York Times Business Section on November 11:
  • Electronics Store Files for Bankruptcy

  • A $150 Billion Rescue for A.I.G. As It Reports a $25 Billion Loss

  • Fannie Mae’s Years of Gains Evaporate in a $29 Billion Hit

  • Big Quarterly Loss for Nortel: Shares Are Down 25%

  • DKHL Cuts 9,500 Jobs in U.S. and an Ohio Town Takes the Brunt

  • Corporate Doubts Send Shares Down

  • Citigroup Offers to Ease Mortgage Terms

  • Tyson Foods Posts a Profit, But Forecasts A Downturn

  • Tribune Company Loses $121 Million

Out of nine randomly selected headlines, six were negative, two were neutral and only one was positive. Reading these dire headlines would tend to reinforce your trepidation about the global economy and its impact on your own financial well-being.

This was a great reminder to me of the power of headlines to reduce a complex issue to a simple dichotomy: good news or bad. Mostly bad. Bad news sells, as is testified to by the old TV producer’s adage: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Since 1986, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has regularly surveyed the U.S. public about the extent of their interest in major news events of the day. Although the size and scope of the American news media have changed dramatically over the past 20+ years, the news interests and preferences of the American people have remained surprisingly static. “Disaster news” (reports about catastrophes, man-made or natural) garners the most attention, followed by “money news” (stories about employment, inflation and prices — especially the price of gasoline) and “conflict news” (stories about war, terrorism, and social violence). Certainly that accounts for at least part of the negative tilt of the Times’ headlines on Veterans Day.

By all means, use headlines as signposts to content that’s worth a second glance. With all the messages bombarding us all day long, who has time to read more than a fraction of what’s out there? However, I would also recommend reading deeper and more widely, if you’re interested in more than just the “news hook” … if you’re interested in what is really going on.

Technorati Tags: headlines, The New York Times, Pew Research Center, news hook, American news media, disaster news, money news, conflict news, business, communications, public relations


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