In a world of multi-screening, where TED talks threaten to replace books and lectures,”, the generation’s ephemeral interests celebrate performance and storytelling over factual accuracy. Writing in The Guardian, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argues that we live in a culture with “a crisis of attentiveness. Amidst instant polling and surfing headlines, there is a great need to be responsible about the first impression that headlines create. Skilled newspaper readers spend most of their reading time scanning the headlines—rather than reading the stories. Even before the advent of the sound-byte world, news headlines have had the power to potentially mislead information consumers for a long time. Yet, never before have headlines wielded such enormous impact over news content as they do today. Regardless of whether their quick summaries misrepresent genuine situations or spread near-erroneous information, the succinct poetry of headlines has subsumed the function performed by in-depth information. The spate of these clickbait titles has not just affected the political news audience but also tarnished the cultural world and the factually upright legal fraternity.
A recent case judgment of Bombay Highcourt where the court acquitted the accused under the POCSO Act since there wasn’t any “skin to skin contact”, made headlines with just this limited information. The headline enraged readers and the court was accused of “licensing such acts”, what wasn’t brought to notice is that the man was still condemned for “outraging the modesty of a woman” under Section 354 of the IPC, just not under POCSO. The righteousness or the legality of the judgment is a debate in its rights but the damage that the headlines created was humongous.
In the contemporary age, information is bountiful, attention is limited and precious. This precious attention directed to misleading headers about Tahira Kashyap’s new book faced the author with incredulous backlash. A few lines excerpt from her 81 pages recent publication “7 sins of being a mother” regarding certain private moments with her husband were taken out, with no context, and the same was termed vulgar, raising heated questions on her maternity spirit and terming her writing to be a “vulgar stunt for publicity”. However, a 30 second read into the news articles which referred to the context, interpreted the entire scenario to be different.
Crucially, correcting misinformation is much more difficult than correcting overtly inaccurate information, especially when misinformation may contain grains of truth spun into subtle but damaging inconsistencies.
In the oscillating times of the pandemic, this panic created through misleading headlines peaked and got classified as a clinical psychological disorder, headline stress disorder. It was first defined by psychologist Dr. Steven Stosny as a high emotional response to endless reports from the news media. The rapid rate of “quick news” transmitted through social media forums that capitalize on clicks, spread a higher infodemic, and an unseen pandemic of stress and misinformation. Government lockdowns, protocols, and vaccines faced tough fates and weren’t accepted as news of “correlation between cancer and mask coverings appeared on social networks”
Just as people may control the impression they make with their attire, so, too, can the headline be crafted to gently alter the perception of the text that follows. A headline can influence what current knowledge is triggered in your head by calling attention to specific aspects or facts. Psychologist Maria Konnikova expresses her anguish over an international publication which ran a headline “Air pollution now the leading cause of lung cancer” while the in-text matter reported that even as pollution was a leading “environmental” cause for cancer, other causes like smoking, are still “the main culprits.”
Unlike our evolutionary ancestors, who were probably rewarded for absorbing as much of their sensory surroundings as they possibly could, what’s adaptive today is the ability to ignore our distracting environments. With this depleting resource of time and attention, reading the headline of a news item replaces the reading of the whole story.