Why Headlines Are So Misleading
by Mary Ellen Stepanich
Do you know why the headlines in newspapers are so lurid, and why they seem to have very little to do with the article that follows? It’s because the journalists who write for the papers know that the majority of subscribers are skimmers, not readers.
I am a typical skimmer. I open the paper, glance at the headlines, and if an item is of interest to me, I might read the first paragraph. If there’s something really intriguing in that, I might read further, even to the end of the item. Journalists know this, which is why the opening paragraph is loaded with the Who-What-Where-When-Why of the story. I will read the entire article only if (a) it’s about something life threatening, (b) it contains something life improving, or (c) it’s funny.
My best friend, on the other hand, is a reader. She takes the paper and a cup of coffee out to her patio, and settles in for a comfy session of reading the paper from cover to cover. She’s interested in knowing what’s going on in the world. I’m only interested in knowing if some crazy idiots are planning to attack my neighborhood with drones, or some other idiots want to pass a law that affects any of my body parts.
Often the headline is misleading. Take, for instance, the headline, “Men’s Club Serves Hot Dogs.” It could mean that a private sportsman’s organization is feeding stolen and sweltering canines. Actually, the gentlemen of a nearby church are hosting a dinner at which they will serve wieners, sodas, and chips to benefit a local charity.
But the item that caught my eye was this one: “Wild Turkey Attacks Carrier.” Oh, my! Was one of our U.S. Navy aircraft carriers under siege by crazed forces from Istanbul? No. In reality, a mailman in New Jersey was trapped inside his truck by wild poultry. Authorities say that seven turkeys accosted a letter carrier as he attempted to deliver mail in a suburban neighborhood.
Wow! This is even better than the reversal “Man Bites Dog” idea that budding journalists are taught to pursue. It’s hard to believe that wild turkeys would attack a human. It’s even harder to believe that a human would be so terrified he would cower inside his truck and call 911 rather than pursue his task. Doesn’t the mailman’s oath say something like: “Neither rain, nor snow, nor dark of night will deter me from my appointed route”? I guess that should be amended to include marauding fowl.
However, there is an element of good news in all of this. The article did end on a positive note, and I quote: “Wild turkeys neared extinction a few decades ago but have made a comeback in New Jersey in recent years.”
Hmmmmm. I wonder what’s in the air on the East Coast that is conducive to bringing turkeys back to life? Maybe it’s blowing in from D.C. – where a congress of turkeys live and thrive.
Mary Ellen is a retired Purdue University professor of organizational behavior. She says, “I’m very organized, but my behavior is a bit wonky.” In addition to a memoir (“D is for Dysfunctional…and Doo Wop”), her publications include academic journal articles, comedy show scripts, stories in Good Old Days magazine, and an award-winning radio play, “Voices from the Front.” Check out her humorous blogs at her website, maryellenstepanich.com.