October 17, 2009

Bad Headlines: People Don't Even Need Help

My last post expressed my unhappiness with the idea of headlines being chosen by the number of people who click the headline. my opinion on that is that headlines become part of the story and so click-based headlines is not going to get you more accurate headlines, just more sensational headlines.

But bad headlines are not new, and you don't need robots to create them. I thought I'd post this example from the recent "balloonboy" silliness.

Sheriff: No indication balloon ordeal was hoax

That's the headline.

Here's what it says in the story:

The sheriff's office said it does not believe at this point that the balloon episode was a stunt, but investigators planned to question the family again Saturday.

"The sheriff's office doesn't believe" is different from "no evidence." The sheriff has a responsibility to be very conservative in his accusations. He may find some scant evidence but find it is not enough to move forward with, in which case he would make a statement such as you see here. And perhaps follow up with some more questions. (The additional questions certainly indicate he still believes there is a possibility it was a hoax)

Heck -- people have already seen plenty of evidence that satisfies a much lower criteria than law enforcement must meet. The father is an attention-seeking jerk. The parents are willing to put the whole family on TV hours after this ordeal, waking the kids up at some ungodly hour in the morning mountain time to get on a nationwide morning show. They let their kid vomit on national TV and don't ask to stop the interview; the interviewer had to suggest it. The kid keeps referring to everything as being "for a show" -- indicating that this instruction came from his parents. And then there's the possibility that the family called the media as well at 911.

There is definitely some evidence that it was a hoax. Enough evidence to prosecute? I don't think so. But indications? Certainly. The man has an absurd lack of judgment and is an attention-seeker. That's not evidence, but it's enough for people to judge him harshly. And I don't think that judgment is unfair.

The headline is in conflict with the facts (and even the story itself). Considering the headline as part of the story, the story is self-contradictory. And the least accurate part is in giant, red type.

It may well be that "Sheriff doesn't believe balloon ordeal was hoax" is less compelling than "Sheriff: No indication balloon ordeal was hoax." But, so what? Well, it is a big deal if it means the difference between your story getting clicked and you getting paid.

Is this the tip of an iceberg? I've always taught the kids that commercials were essentially institutionalized (and adult-approved) lying for the sake of making money. But what happens as these principles are applied to our information sources? I guess we know what happens: trading accuracy for dollars becomes a science and sensationalism wins.

Accuracy and your brain lose.

Argue, if you like, that the truth can still be discerned from this story. Fine. Then we can talk about percentages of people who are able to come away with an accurate message, or about the the trade-off being increased cognitive load required to make the news useful vs. dollars. In the latter case, this would be the informational version of shrinking the contents of a box of cereal as a sneaky way to raise the price of the cereal.

I think it's no good.

Posted by James at October 17, 2009 9:06 AM
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I fell like I'm an under informed citizen. While I peak at the top headlines, I don't read a newspaper or watch the evening news. I find the news coverage in all media to be more like PR and marketing than actual news. I'm thinking of looking into a clipping service or something so I can stay on top of things that interest me without having to be distracted by celebrity melodrama and hyped personal interest crap, not to mention the distractors that politicians try to throw in the mix to keep citizens from focusing on the real issues.

It's depressing.

Posted by: Kitten Herder at October 17, 2009 11:49 AM

Listening to NPR is a good antidote. When people tell me it's for the liberal elite, it just sounds to me like they're saying that asking questions and devoting time to news reported intelligently is antithetical to their way of thinking. And that's a sad admission.

Posted by: James at October 17, 2009 1:56 PM

Why are you surprised? MSM news has been nothing but a cost center and money maker for decades.
I remember Linda Ellerbee and Bill Schechner having their news show NBC News Overnight cancelled not because they weren't good, and not because they weren't making money.
It was because they weren't making enough money.
Ellerbee's sardonic on-air announcement of the cancellation--"...and now, the rest of the news"--was absolutely priceless.
The only solution to the news vs. marketing issue you raise is to work it yourself--gather as many varied news sources as you can, and read them all very, very critically.

Posted by: Givesgoodemail at October 19, 2009 1:11 PM

No surprise here, just annoyance. You can see how it took exactly no time for a great example to present itself.

Posted by: James at October 19, 2009 1:33 PM

It was a hoax...they wanted to be famous thet r famous now..http://provpic.blogspot.com/

Posted by: Marioza at October 24, 2009 1:09 PM

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