The power of headlines

Take the one about the man who infiltrated the British Embassy in Tel Aviv.

British Embassy 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
British Embassy 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Headlines are tightly written because of space limitations. They should, nevertheless, conform to minimum standards of journalistic integrity. The code of ethics of the US Society of Professional Journalists requires that headlines must not misrepresent. Nor should they oversimplify, or highlight incidents out of context. How do headlines influence our perception of reported events? We may not always be aware that headlines don't merely report the news but, in many instances, influence how we evaluate it. Our impression of the relative importance of events is colored not only by the wording of "heads," but, more persuasively, by their size and position. Finally, the headline influences our decision whether or not to read the rest of the article. Headlines assume even greater importance in today's world. The sheer volume of news and commentary via newspapers, radio and TV, augmented by the plethora of Web sites and blogs, is overwhelming. Few of us manage to completely read more than a small selection of the articles we come across. For the rest, we skim the headlines. When these are misleading, we are left with distorted opinions. A TYPICAL example. On September 1, The Jerusalem Post reported that the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court remanded a Ramallah resident who had infiltrated the British Embassy in Tel Aviv the previous night and threatened to kill himself if he was not granted asylum in the United Kingdom. British embassy officials had invited Israeli police to enter the embassy compound to assist. A tense six-hour standoff ended safely when police subdued the Palestinian. It is revealing to compare how the Web sites of various media headlined this simple story:
  • The Jerusalem Post: "British Embassy infiltrator remanded."
  • MSNBC: "Armed man infiltrates U.K. Embassy in Israel. Commandos storm mission, seize Palestinian threatening suicide."
  • "Israeli police storm UK embassy, capture Palestinian."
  • AP: "Israeli Police Storm British Embassy."
  • BBC: "Commandos storm Tel Aviv embassy."
  • "Israelis Capture Man at British Embassy."
  • FOX News: "Israeli Commandos Storm British Embassy, Nab Palestinian Gunman Demanding Asylum."
  • Haaretz: "Palestinian bursts into British embassy with toy gun."
  • USA Today: "Commandos storm British Embassy to capture armed man demanding asylum.
  • International Herald Tribune: "Israeli police storm British embassy, capture Palestinian gunmen [sic]." I LEAVE it to the reader to decide which of the above headlines calmly state the facts, and which inject emotional overtones. Interestingly, only The Jerusalem Post made it clear in the body of its report that the entire operation was conducted at the invitation of the British embassy, contrary to the false impression created by headlines which suggested that "storming" was an act of force against the sovereign territory of the British Embassy. MISLEADING headlines are far from new. I am reminded of one of the rare instances in which the British Guardian published an admission of an indefensible headline. Back in May 2004, I wrote to The Guardian about the wording of a headline: "Hungary foils 'Jewish' terror plot," reporting that the Hungarian police had arrested three Arabs suspected of planning to attack a Jewish museum in Budapest. I wrote that my first reaction on reading the bold headline was increased resentment against those troublesome Jews plotting terror attacks in Hungary. Only after reading the entire article did I realize that the headline was completely misleading. The plot was not by Jews, but against Jews; a case of the victim misrepresented as the culprit. I did not receive a reply immediately, but after Endre Mozes, chairman of the Take-a-Pen Web site, re-sent my complaint, Ian Mayes, The Guardian's ombudsman, ran an apology. The writer, based in Herzliya, is an industrial engineer and business consultant.