HT01: Don’t stop at the headline
At Research the Headlines, our aim is to examine “the way in which research is discussed and portrayed in the media”. If you follow our blog, you will see we regularly take recent media coverage of a piece of research, and look at how that coverage matches the research it purports to discuss. We often highlight very good examples of research reporting, as well as pointing out when it might not be quite right (or downright wrong!).
Of course, we can’t cover every research-related news story that appears. So, over the next few months we’re going to post 10 of our “top tips” to help you to “Research the Headlines”. These short tips should help you to get closer to the truth of any research reported in the media. Some of these will be pretty common sense (like today’s starting point), but whether you have some background in research or none at all, we hope these short “top tips” blogs are of interest.
As always, we welcome your feedback on our How to “Research the Headlines” guides and other regular blogs. For now though, here’s our first tip.
Part 1: Don’t stop at the headline
This is probably the most straightforward of all the “top tips” to come, and indeed probably the most obvious. A headline is just that, some words at the head of a more in-depth article. Even when they’re good, clear and accurate, they can’t convey the full nature of what the story is about. So, read on…
Not all headlines are good, clear and accurate. Some use particular tactics to lure you in, whether that be to buy the paper as you dash to work, or click that link as you scroll through your newsfeed. Headlines are of course there to serve a purpose, and as such are specifically designed for stimulate the buy/click response, but many do not necessarily prompt a full reading of the story. A really good headline should make you do all of those, particularly the latter.
Some tactics betray the more sensational aspects of a headline writer’s job. At Research the Headlines, we’ve discussed a few of these in recent months, for example, unnecessarily capitalising the words “mentally ill” in the headline to a piece discussing selfies and mental illness. Capitalisation such as this serves to stigmatise a particular group before the story even begins. Another example likened children to “monsters” in the headline to a report on the associations between childcare and behaviour. Headlines need to convey information succinctly, but they needn’t involve the dumbing down, or in some cases complete misrepresentation, of the main story. A point to always remember is that the journalist will rarely be responsible for the headline to their story. We’re not naive enough to think that sensationalist (or lazy) headlines will disappear, but we will try to point out when we feel they are particularly biased, cruel or simply wrong.
In some cases, the headlines might not even match the main thrust of the story. At Research the Headlines we’ve covered a number of stories where the actual reporting has been good, or very good, but the journalist has been let down by a headline (albeit one they probably had no part in producing, of course). So please, do yourself and the journalist a favour and actually get into the bones of the article. When the media reports are good, that’s where the nuance, discussion and sheer enthusiasm for a piece of research can be found.