The power of headlines
By Maurice Ostroff
Op-ed in the
Jerusalem Post, September 12, 2006
Headlines are .tightly written because of space limitations. They should, nevertheless, conform to minimum
standards of joumalistic integrity. The code of ethics of the US Society of Professional Journalists requires that headlines
must not misrepresent. Nor should they oversimplify, or highlight incidents out of context.
How do headlines influence our perception of reported events? We may not always be aware that headlines
don't merely report the news but, in many instances, .influence how we evaluate it. Our impression of the relative importance
of events is colored riot only by the wording of "heads," but, more persuasively, by their size and position. Finally, the
headline influences our decision whether or not to read the rest of the article.
Headlines assume even greater importance in today's world. The sheer volume of news and commentary via
newspapers, radio and TV, augmented by the plethora of Web sites and blogs, is overwhelming. 'Few of us manage to completely
read more than a small selection of the articles we come across. For the rest, we skim the headlines.
When these are misleading, we are left with distorted opinions.
A TYPICAL example. On September 1, The Jerusalem Post reported that the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court remanded
a Ramallah resident who had infiltrated the British Embassy in Tel Aviv the previous night and threatened to kill himself
if he was not granted asylum in the United-Kingdom.
British embassy officials had invited Israeli police to enter the embassy compound to assist. A tense
six-hour stand- off ended safely when police subdued the Palestinian.
It is revealing to compare how the Web sites of various media headlined this simple story:
- The Jerusalem Post: "British Embassy
- MSNBC; "Armed man infiltrates U.K. Embassy
In Israel. Commandos storm mission, seize Palestinian threatening suicide."
- CNN.com: "Israeli police storm UK embassy,
"Israeli Police Storm British Embassy."
- BBC: "Commandos storm Tel Aviv embassy."
- Washingtonpost.com: "Israelis Capture
Man at British Embassy."
- FOX News: "Israeli Commandos Storm British
Embassy, Nab Palestinian Gunman Demanding Asylum."
- Haaretz: "Palestinian bursts into British
embassy with toy gun."
- USA Today: "Commandos storm British Embassy
to capture armed man. demanding asylum.
- International Herald Tribune: "Israeli
police storm British embassy, capture Palestinian gunmen [sic]."
I LEAVE it to the reader to decide which of the above headlines calmly state the facts, and which inject
emotional overtones. Interestingly, only The Jerusalem Post made it clear in the body of its report that the entire operation
was conducted at the invitation of the British embassy, contrary to the false impression created by headlines, which suggested
that "storming" was an act of force against the sovereign territory of the British Embassy.
MISLEADING headlines are far from new. I am reminded of one of the rare instances in which the British
Guardian published an admission of an indefensible headline.
Back in May 2004, I wrote to The Guardian about the wording of a headline: "Hungary foils 'Jewish' terror
plot," reporting that the Hungarian ' police had arrested three Arabs suspected of planning to attack a Jewish museum in Budapest.
I. wrote that my first reaction on reading the bold headline was increased resentment against those troublesome
Jews plotting tenor attacks in Hungary. Only after reading the entire article did I realize that the headline was completely
misleading. The plot was not by Jews, but against Jews; a case of the victim misrepresented as the culprit.
I did not receive a reply immediately, but after Endre Mozes, chairman of the Take-a-Pen Web site, re-sent
my complaint, lan Mayes, The Guardian's ombudsman, ran an apology.