White journalists sit around a busy news room, black and white

Yes, journalists are* responsible for their headlines

* They ought to be.

Authors of many stripes don’t write the titles for their articles and books. And, specifically, journalists rarely write their own headlines.

Unfortunately, headlines are, often enough, hyperbolic, clickbaity, misleading, having secondary content, racist, priming, inappropriate or ill-judged.1

When this happens, engaged readers that take time to read the entire article will voice their concern about the headline, to the author. They will, that is, if they see the problem, and this is not a given. But if they do, they’ll complain to the author.

And, much to the annoyance of journalists, this can often happen in public, online spaces.

When this happens, the journalist will most usually respond with a snappy formulation of “I didn’t write the headline!” When they do this, they fail to take responsibility for their headline. And this is a serious problem.2

It’s a problem for journalists and for news organizations. And it’s a problem for, very generally, journalism.3

I get that journalists have a hard time with this. So would I. The headline, after all, is not their fault. They really didn’t write it. But this distinction between fault and responsibility is very important.

It is common and healthy in other professional spaces to hold someone responsible even if they are not directly at fault. And there are many reasons why journalists should start stepping up for their headlines.

The first reason is that journalists who accept responsibility for their headlines, will be doing their careers a favour. Journalists, after all, are tacitly accepting praise from a well written headline. And well they should. It’s part of their body of work. Their article gets referenced by the headline. It’s part of their work and their name is on it. Right under it, actually. All of this means that the headline has a dramatic affect on their reputation, good or bad.

The second reason is that journalists who start accepting responsibility will be more likely to push back and help their headline writers and editors to do a better job. I get that young journalists, or journalists who are precariously employed, often feel like they lack power, or time, to push back. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. Pushing back can be a very corrective force in an editorial process. Failure to do so, is simply giving up and not caring.4

The third reason is that every time a journalists ducks responsibility for a headline, they’re placing blame with they’re employer. And this is bad for the employer. It can be a hilarious insight into the respect, or lack of respect, a given journalist has for the people they work for. When a journalist exclaims, “I didn’t write the headline,” it’s a signal that they’re embarrassed for the platform that paid them.

First panel: "I’m a journalist and journalism is really important ... an essential part of a healthy democracy ... serious business ... free speech ... truth will out ... we tell stories that need telling ... press freedom is protected... seventh estate". Second panel: "I DIDN’T WRITE THE HEADLINE!"

This brings me to the final, and most important, reason: journalists would benefit from getting more connected to how their work is being used. Many journalists live in a kind of cognitive dissonance about their work. Many find themselves working for a news organization that has a right leaning ownership and a right leaning narrative. And often this runs counter to their own values and interests.

In some instances, journalists get their jobs, and keep their jobs, by taking up the public narrative of being a fair and balanced news org. And many just keep doing their work with the most personal integrity that they can muster given their circumstance.

Sometimes this leads to burn out and cynicism. Sometimes this leads to a change in fields. But the result of this is also to turn off and pay less attention to how their work is getting operationalized. Their work is fair and balanced. So as long as they can ignore what their employer does with their work, they can continue to believe that the impact of their work is also fair and balanced.

The headline is one easy way that a news agency can spin any dispatch a journalist files.

And headlines are powerful. Misleading headlines are powerful. Research by Ullrich, Lewandowsky, and Chang published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that “misleading headlines affect readers’ memory, their inferential reasoning and behavioral intentions” and even the “impressions that they form of faces.” The idea is that readers, humans really, aren’t all that good at updating incorrect information that they inferred because of the distorting affect of the headline.

Sometimes, after all the hard work, and all the facts and the tears, all that remains of a story are the soundbites and ideas contained in the headline. Sometimes all that’s left are the ideas that were incorrectly inferred because of the way the headline shaped the article.56

It’s time that journalists took responsibility. Sure. And. Also. Journalism is a whole big system, and it might seem a little heavy handed to expect journalists to be responsible for safeguarding their industry.

But journalists are uniquely positioned to take on this responsibility, and if they’re half the force for truth and democracy that the industry would have us believe, it should be doable. I am wondering, in other words, if the goalposts for what constitutes professional integrity might be different than personal integrity – and it includes ought to include headlines. [end]

  1. In some instances, the headlines actually contradict the author.
  2. One of the reasons I care about this issue is that I see journalists making fun of readers all the time on Twitter, because the “silly readers don’t understand” that the journalists don’t write the headlines. And really, I think the readers are having a reasonable response.
  3. This is probably a good place to note that I use “journalism” in a very broad sense here, and will just set aside for now that much of what passes as journalism, is not. But this is also a good place to note that journalism is a big place – it’s a big ecosystem and journalists are just individual animals in that ecosystem. I say this because I sometimes wonder if I’m being too hard on journalists, and not being hard enough on the system of journalism.
  4. Misleading headlines can leave lasting impressions.
  5.  The effects of subtle misinformation in news headlines. Ecker, Ullrich K. H.; Lewandowsky, Stephan; Chang, Ee Pin; Pillai, Rekha. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Vol 20(4), Dec 2014, 323-335.
  6. Breaking the News: First Impressions Matter on Online News, Julio Reis, Fabrıcio Benevenuto, Pedro O.S. Vaz de Melo, Raquel Prates, Haewoon Kwak, Jisun An, ICWSM 2015, Computers and Society (cs.CY); Computation and Language

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