Nowadays you can’t click on a website without spotting sensationalist headlines.
“Fireman saves cat stuck in tree! Whole town cheers.” While sensationalism has always been a part of journalism, pressure to build website traffic and increase clicks has pushed more and more media outlets to employ headline strategies that might have been previously reserved for tabloids.
In a perfect world, reporters and editors would collaborate to ensure both the headline and accompanying article convey an accurate representation of the subject in the article. In reality, the disconnect between headline and the reporter writing the article is growing. A copy editor might be asked to spice up a headline, which the reporter might never see until it appears online. While some news outlets work hard to continue the practice of clear, accurate headlines, others do not, which can leave readers confused about the focus of the article.
Take a recent headline in The New York Daily News, which read “Disturbed ‘Dexter’ actress vanishes in NYC, has been missing for days.” Over time, the article’s headline was changed to “Actress Mabel Pantaleon, who has appeared in ‘Dexter’ and ‘Mystery ER,’ missing since Sunday.”
Using a word such as “disturbed” in a headline could be offensive to readers of all different backgrounds. From a mental health perspective, the word “disturbed” brings to image a person who’s violent and easily unhinged. In reality, the actress Mabel Pantaleon was described to have “a history of manic depression.” Manic depression, also known as “bipolar disorder,” is sometimes misunderstood by members of the media. Unless a person has a substantiated history of violent behavior, using a verb such as “disturbed” in a headline creates a negative impression of the missing individual.
“Avoid vague, sensational language (cure, miracle, breakthrough, promising, dramatic, etc.)”
“Ensure that the total news package (headlines, teases, graphics, promotional material) does not oversimplify or misrepresent.Coach editors, photographers, producers, writers, graphic artists and copy editors to embrace these values in their work.”
While writing search engine-optimized headlines is a necessary part of the media world today, editors can and should work with reporters to avoid misrepresentation when writing articles for the web.