Title value: Drawing the line to prevent headline havoc

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Illustration by Greg Storey

What’s in a title? Well, a lot, but a title’s most important job is to grab your readers’ attention and convince them to actually take a look at what you’ve written. So, it’s in every author’s interest to make a title as loud, shocking and compelling as possible, right?

Maybe. But my question is, when does that sort of approach become morally unacceptable?

Although there have been countless articles guilty of overstepping with headlines, I’m thinking specifically about a recent New York Times article headline: “Reaching ‘Herd Immunity’ Is Unlikely in the U.S., Experts Now Believe.”

The story came amidst a week of long-awaited journalistic optimism; Americans had finally begun seeing stories about how we were going to make it out of this pandemic because more and more people were getting vaccinated every day. The article was circulated widely, causing mass panic on social media and even earning some significant backlash from Twitter users. 

Here are the main problems I saw with the article.

Purposeful doomsday impression

When I read the headline, my heart sank and a knot formed in my stomach. I had finally started seeing more friends after a year of strict social bubbling and had made the switch back from two masks to one when running errands.

After a year of collective national anxiety, the headline felt a bit overboard to say the least. The qualification of  “Experts Now Believe” seemed like a weak attempt to maintain journalistic professionalism.

Now, had this title been fully warranted and accurate, I would get it. 

But, as it turns out, it wasn’t.

Unrepresentative of the article’s content

As with most articles with clickbait headlines, the story was packed with nuance and qualifications. Frankly, it was quite well-researched and filled with quotes about how defining herd immunity itself was a complex undertaking, how if vaccination efforts stayed on course, normalcy was around the corner. 

The headline’s phrasing was designed to make people think that COVID would still be an active part of American life. However, the article itself made it clear that although the virus itself will exist, we are well on our way to resolving the disastrous impact it’s had on American lifestyles in the last year.

So then, what’s the issue? It’s a headline that was dramatic enough to make you click the story, where you receive the information at hand, right?

Well, not really.

The paywall!!!!

This is probably my biggest issue with the New York Times and a host of publications like them. While I believe that journalists deserve to be paid well for their important work, the owners of such publications are doing a disservice to the public by charging money to read entire stories. 

We’ve all been there; you’re reading the first few lines of a story, and suddenly it cuts off unless you want to start paying a dollar or so, weekly. Most people are going to shrug, take what they’ve already read, and, most likely, the title will be remembered as a summary.

Not offering the full article to your audience is less likely than the publication thinks to garner a profit and more likely to encourage the spread of misinformation spreading from the initially misleading title.

The Times’ article is just one example of how headlines can be misleading and damaging. Now, I’m aware that by writing about the Times story, I’ve helped the author and publication accomplish their goal, which was garnering attention. But from a moral perspective, I feel that publications owe their audiences more. 

So, how do you tow the line between compelling and cruel? Here are the three things that I think are most important.

Context

I get it. Headlines are supposed to be short. And there are subheadings. But keep in mind that subheadings often won’t appear on the social media preview of an article that circulates everywhere you post.

Even a little bit of context in your headlines can mean a lot to audiences. A headline such as “The US may never reach herd immunity—what does that actually mean?” could have indicated a less fatalistic article that still compels readers to click.

Accuracy

Whether you’re posting on a personal blog or a widely-read news journal, make sure your headline reflects what your readers are going to see.

Clickbait is unprofessional and detracts from credibility. Work to add suspense to the article preview that your headline offers without suggesting ideas that your story will falsify.

Accessibility

Simply put, online news should be free. If your publication is not, it’s your responsibility to ensure that you are not spreading misinformation by putting out devastating headlines that can’t be fully understood and hiding the rest of the information behind a paywall.

At LexBlog, and on my personal blog, I strive to make my titles informative and interesting. I want people to have an accurate idea of what they’re about to read when they click my post, and I think the world of digital publishing would be better off if everyone did the same.

Sophie is a Legal Community Reporter on LexBlog’s Publishing team where she creates, edits, and shares content about the network’s members through multiple mediums, including blog posts, videos, and podcasts. She is passionate about tenants’ rights, specifically in New York City, and has written about the issue on her personal blog, The Price of Presence. Currently living in the Bronx, Sophie will soon be moving to Manhattan and attending Fordham Law School in Fall 2021.

Photo of Sophia Singh
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