Headlines as News Content

News headlines are increasingly divorced from the article content, with serious connotations for a nation of skimmers.

Jeff Nolan notes that news headlines, including at prestige venues like the NYT, are increasingly divorced from the article content.  He concludes that this has serious consequences:

Back in the day, when newspapers came exclusively with dirty fingers, such issues were less critical because newspapers delivered the news content with the headline as a unit.

Today the headline stands independent of the full content article, and thanks to search engines and news aggregators we get a lot of our news in headline format only… we’re a generation of skimmers not readers and in this context the example I laid out above is far more serious because taken independently the headline actually contradicts much of what was written in the article and therefore delivers a completely different message than what the author intended.

In an ideal world, a headline would be a pithy summary of the point of the article.  Instead, it’s either a provocative thesis that’s actually debunked in the article, a provocative thesis totally unsupported by the facts presented in the article, or otherwise misleading.

Is it a bad thing for readers?  Probably.

I myself write headlines to catch the eye of those skimming their blogs via feed readers, those looking for content in search engines, and to get clickthroughs from Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites where my feed headlines are syndicated.   And, judging from experimenting at sites like Reddit and Fark, headlines are even more critical there.  So I don’t see this trend going away.

One advantage the recent site redesign has it that it displays a short abstract of the article, which gives the author the ability to state his thesis succinctly.  That allows the best of both worlds:   the ability to be clever with headlines while immediately signaling to the reader where the post is going.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    This is new?

    The traditional newspaper story was written inverted pyramid style, so the reader could read the first paragraph or sentence and get the gist. I have a lot more thoughts and observations about this, but I suspect most people have stopped reading by now. Damn attention spans.

  2. James Joyner says:

    The argument, I think, is that aside from front page headlines — which were always written to attract attention from passersby — there wasn’t any incentive to sensationalize them for most stories. You didn’t see them unless you’d bought the paper.

    Now, though, people get news from various aggregators and catchy headlines are the way content providers compete for eyeballs.

  3. steve says:

    This phenomenon is even worse on cable news. It’s almost as if they have hired the Onion staff to write their headlines.


  4. john personna says:

    PD, I think it’s tension between the inverted pyramid and the intentionally buried lede.

    I think we’ve all seen posts in which the author argues against his own headline in paragraph six or ten. Sometimes the later ‘graphs even present data to disprove it.

    (Darn, I should have buried my lede somehow.)

  5. Brummagem Joe says:

    Dumbing down continues.

  6. Bill Jempty says:

    The dumbing down has been going on for sometime

    Jan 1 2000 is the beginning of the new milennium

    An LPGA Tournament started in 1972 celebrates its 35th anniversary in 2006. Did they start counting anniversaries with the first tournament?

    CBS News reports a man held hostage May 29-October 2nd as being kept in captivity for 6 months. That’s 4 months and 4 day but CBS counted it May is 1, June is 2, July is 3, etc.

    Books written by James Patterson co-author are bestsellers.