Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Why headlines are important

That S*n headline

On November 23rd 2015 the S*n lead with the appallingly misleading headline "1 in 5 Brit Muslims' sympathy for jihadis" when the actual question they based this shock headline on made no mention of jihadis or Islamist fanatics of any description. What it actually asked was whether respondents had sympathy towards anyone going to fight in Syria (which includes ISIS, but also the anti-Assad Syrian Free Army and the anti-ISIS Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces). What is more, the poll also revealed that 1 in 7 of the general UK population expressed similar general sympathies towards people going to fight in Syria, meaning that there is actually very little difference between the opinions of British Muslims and those of the general British public.

A more accurate headline might have read "According to a poll based on the very dubious methodology of trawling the Survation database for Muslim sounding names it turns out that British Muslims are very marginally more likely to express sympathy for people going to fight for or against ISIS in the Syrian civil war than the general British public are" but then that surely wouldn't have sold as many papers as the blatantly misleading headline they ran with.

Aside from stripping out the desired anti-Muslim fearmongering the Murdoch empire deem necessary in the wake of the Paris atrocities, such an accurate headline would be unthinkable because it's obviously far too long to scan. As an independent Blogger one of the most difficult things is coming up with short snappy article titles that will accurately describe the contents and incentivise people to actually click on the link. I'll freely admit that tabloid news teams are much better at coming up with snappy and/or humourous titles than I am. Probably the best ones I ever came up with was "Tories sell NHS blood supply to vampire capitalists" back in 2013 and the incredibly clickbaity "Don't Read This Article" earlier in 2015.

My Church of England headline

After addressing the appallingly misleading nature of the S*n headline with an infographic, later that day I posted an article about the DCM Cinema group refusing to allow the screening of the Church of England's Lord's Prayer advert. This article provoked quite an uproar with one of the main recurring complaints being that it was unacceptably misleading to use the word "banned" to describe the decision to not allow the advert to be shown.

Numerous people complained that my use of the word "banned" was inaccurate/misleading, and others became so upset that they claimed they'd lost all respect for me, and that the credibility of the rest of my work had been destroyed. In my view these kinds of statements were huge over-reactions, especially from people who were trying to take the rational high ground. However people are entitled to their views, even if their main complaint of inaccuracy relies on some kind of semantic point about how "banned" is a totally unacceptable word to describe "the prevention of something being shown".

To give an example of why I consider the word banned to be appropriate here's a question: If I write a set of rules saying "no Christmas music is allowed in my house" (then justify the house rules by releasing a statement about how it's not to be allowed because some people might find it offensive), have I "banned" Christmas music from my house or not?

Apparently some people would argue that I haven't, and furthermore that anyone saying that I had would be guilty of respect-destroying levels of inaccuracy!

I did try to consider what the objection was, and whether there was something more to it than some kind of semantic point about "banned" being an outrage-inducingly inappropriate synonym for "prevented", "prohibited", "forbidden", "stopped", or whatever other word people would have preferred me to use, but I still can't see how my use of the word "banned" provoked such a furious response.

The reason I found this fixation on the word "banned" so disappointing is that surely people can come up with stronger criticisms of my article, or defences of the ban on religious adverts than what appears to be nothing more than a semantic point about the use of a single word?

What I did get wrong

Having looked at the headline again for some time (to try to figure out why it made so many people so angry), I have spotted something that I could have changed to make it more accurate, but it's not actually my use of the word banned at all, it's the context in which it's used. What I wrote was "The Church of England advert that has been banned ..."  when a more accurate interpretation of events might have been to write "The Church of England advert that is banned ..." .

The difference being that it is possible to read "has been banned" as an implication that the decision by DCM to ban the religious advert in their cinemas has only just been taken, while the use of "is banned" more accurately describes the actual situation where the advert was not allowed to be aired in UK cinemas due to pre-existing rules, but that these rules were then justified with a statement about how adverts from religious groups are not allowed in DCM cinemas in case certain cinema goers get offended by them. This "people might get offended" justification was the actual crux of the article but it received so much less attention than my use of the word banned in the headline.

Why headlines are important

Headlines are particularly important because so many people read no further than the headline. The circulation of The S*n has now dipped below two million, but millions more people will have seen that misleading front page headline on news stands, in canteens, on public transport, in waiting rooms or in family homes. In my view it's doubtful whether more than 20% of the people who saw the misleading headline actually read the whole article, and it's doubtful whether 0.2% of the people who read the headline ended up looking up the Survation poll that the misleading headline was supposedly based on and checking the wording of the actual question for themselves.

Similarly with my blog post about the Church of England advert, my Facebook statistics tell me that my post (including the headline image and link to the article) was seen over 288,000 times in Facebook news feeds, and my blog statistics tell me that only* 27,000 odd people actually clicked the link to see what the article actually said.

Most of the people who see any of my articles will not click on them, which is fair enough. I certainly don't click on all of the articles I see going across my Facebook news feed either.

I know from my statistics that if I get my headline wrong, it doesn't matter how good the article is, people won't click on it and it will only get read by a tiny percentage of people who see it (sometimes below 1%). If I get it right then it will get clicked on by a much higher percentage of people, shared, and eventually read by tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people.


One of the lessons I've learned from the reaction to my headline is that there is more to writing a good one than quickly typing some text into a box because you're in a hurry to get your article published. Another is that it's important to state things in ways they can't be misconstrued (deliberately or otherwise) because if I word my headline wrong it's clearly possible that comments from people addressing the actual contents of the article will be completely drowned out under a tide of complaints from people who object to the headline.

Another thing I've learned is that when people are upset they say utterly bizarre things, like people comparing my use of the word "banned" to describe a situation where something is not allowed to be shown with the appallingly misleading Muslim fearmongering headline in the S*n earlier that day.

Apparently some people are prepared to argue that some lone-wolf blogger using the word "banned" instead of "prevented" (or whatever word they would have preferred) in the title of an article read by fewer than 27,000 people is somehow the direct equivalent of the editors of Britain's most widely read newspaper deciding to run a totally misleading headline, seen and believed by countless millions of people, and apparently devised with the objective of stirring up anti-Muslim hatred in the wake of the Paris atrocities (making the S*n editors who gave it the green light guilty of fighting the ISIS propaganda war for them by creating divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims).

Of course I'll aspire to be more accurate in the way I phrase things when it comes to thinking up headlines from now on and I thank anyone who pointed out their objections in a polite, reasonable and non-hyperbolic manner for their input. However I'm not taking such a stance because of the flood of extremely negative reactions to the title of my article, I'm doing it despite them.

Having so many people say that they've "lost all respect" for me, attacking my credibility, slinging insults at me, misrepresenting what I actually said, completely ignoring the majority of points I raised in the article, and even comparing my work to the anti-Muslim fearmongering of the S*n was a bit of an onslaught, but it definitely won't deter me from writing about what I want to. In fact it actually makes me far more inclined to write something else that these people will dislike just to prove to myself that I won't by silenced from expressing my own opinions, no matter how many people try to shout me down or make insulting comparisons between my work and the appalling anti-Muslim fearmongering of Rupert Murdoch's vast propaganda empire.

I'll just have to make more effort to ensure my headlines are not as easily misconstrued so that a higher percentage of any complaints end up addressing the actual content of the article, not the wording of the headline.

 Another Angry Voice  is a "Pay As You Feel" website. You can have access to all of my work for free, or you can choose to make a small donation to help me keep writing. The choice is entirely yours.

* = My use of the word "only" to describe 27,000 hits does seem a little churlish for a couple of reasons. 27,000 hit from 288,000 views is a hit rate of almost 10% which is actually pretty good, suggesting that the headline was interesting enough to get a significantly above average number of people to actually click on it. It also seems churlish because I'm pretty sure that there are a lot of independent bloggers out there who would be delighted with 27,000 hits on one of their articles.

The "banned" Church of England advert
Bigotry and cowardice in the Republican Party

The incompatibility of Christian ethics and modern Conservatism
The Church of England and poverty

Richard Dawkins and the slave trade
Richard Dawkins and the far-right extremists
12 Things you should know about Britain First


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