Headline headaches

headlines-wideTim Parks, New York Review of Books Blog

Nothing prejudices the way a reader comes to a piece more than its headline. Nothing is more likely to make him or her believe, even after reading the article through, that the author has said something he has not said and perhaps would never want people to imagine he has said.

Dishonesty of headlining may seem a minor issue. It isn’t. It’s a sign of a wider malaise. The health of democracy is the health of the collective mind, but one increasingly comes away from a newspaper or a computer screen with the sense of having been exposed to a hail of darts, all aimed at inflaming and exciting the mind, but rarely instructing.

And of course we all read far more headlines than we do articles, far more Tweets, captions, slogans, and pop ups, in a process which is part of the general division of attention in the electronic devices vibrating in our pockets, the websites we keep in background, the messages constantly coming to us from posters, screens and PA systems. The tendency is always toward provoking us to react, in a complacent and unreflecting way: I read this and feel angry, I read that and feel vindicated, I read the other and feel anxious, over-anxious.

It wasn’t always thus. Up until about a century ago, a headline or title was usually a neutral attempt to inform the reader of the contents of an article or book. But as the twentieth century progressed, or regressed, it was more and more understood as an advertising opportunity and the writing itself as no more, no less, than “content”—a consumer good. Newspapers on the verge of financial meltdown grow desperate and clearly seek to gratify their particular readership’s supposed prejudices.

Read the full blog entry at New York Review of Books …