How these headlines work will shock you. Click here to read more.

journalism inverted pyramid
An illustration of the inverted pyramid

Print news media and its online counterparts often make use of a format known as the “inverted pyramid.” Here’s how it works: the most basic parts of the story are contained in the headline if they will fit. Then, in the body of the story, you will find the most significant information at the top. As you go further into the story, you will find more peripheral details. By the time you get to the end of the story you are likely looking at general background information.

This system allows you to take your news feed, or print newspaper if you are into that sort of thing, and start by reading just the headlines. For the stories that do not really grab your interest, the headline will suffice to give you a general impression of what is going on. If you want to know more details, all you have to do is keep reading.

Consider this satirical article from The Onion as an example. Keep in mind, this is a fictional story published as a joke, but it does demonstrate the pattern I’m talking about. Here’s the headline: “Area Man Accepts Burden Of Being Only Person On Earth Who Understands How World Actually Works.” Notice how it answers the key questions:

  • Who – a man
  • What – accepted the burden of being the only person on earth who understands how world actually works
  • Where – somewhere “in the area”

Once you get into the article you learn more. The first paragraph tells us that his name is Aaron Krause and that he accepted the burden on Thursday. The second paragraph contains biographical details about Krause such as his age and family details. By the end of the story, we are greeted with the implication of this newfound burden for his interactions with others. We could probably have stopped at the headline if we were not overly concerned with the details.

While this allows readers to sift through and find the stories that are most relevant to them, there is a dark side to this: misleading headlines. While most major news outlets are pretty good about avoiding outright falsehoods, they can sometimes succumb to the temptation of using a misleading headline to push an agenda or to save space. Either way, this practice can undermine our faith in the press and the information they provide.

For example, last month the New York Times ran an article with the headline: “Trump Proposal Would Deport More Immigrants Immediately.” Here is the response they got from a concerned reader:

I get people can have legitimate beefs against the immigration rules coming out, but the headline is “Trump Proposal Would Deport More Immigrants Immediately.” Are you kidding me? That makes it sound like he’s deporting people who immigrated here legally. – Glen Powell, New Hope, Minn. in the New York Times Mailbag

What the reader correctly observes is that the headline does not make a distinction between people who immigrated legally and those who immigrated illegally, which is a fundamental distinction in the debate over immigration policy.

Liz Spayd, the Public Editor at the New York Times, had this to say in regards to the headline:

The head of the copy desk, Jill Taylor, agrees with the reader that “illegal” would have made for a clearer headline, though she pointed out that, for space reasons, the desk took a calculated risk that readers who’ve been paying at least a little attention would not equate “immigrants” with all immigrants. Two reactions from me. First, I sympathize, as always, with the dilemma of the copy editor trying to fit “undocumented immigrants” into a headline. But making the choice to lose the qualifier distorts the meaning. Headlines that refer only to “immigrants” makes it sound like a World War II-style round-up. Deporting immigrants who are undocumented, and thus here illegally, is a much smaller subset of all immigrants, and aggressive deportation of this group has been pursued in past administrations too. Plus, with the occasional confusion that some White House directives are producing, clarity on what in fact is happening becomes all the more crucial. -Liz Spayd of the New York Times

So what are thoughtful and critical readers to do in the face of potentially misleading headlines? Recognize that the headline can shape your preconceptions about the story even before you read it. If the story seems important or if it might have bearing on your understanding of an important subject, be certain that you read the entire story all the way to the end. If you are looking at headlines on a media platform that leans to the left, try looking up the same story on a right-leaning or center-leaning platform and see how they titled the same story. Do not forget that, to at least some extent, mainstream news publishers can have their own interests in play when they publish. The news media has its own side.

This is far from a call to reject the news media. Instead, it is a call for consumers to hold the news media accountable and for the  news media to rise to the challenges of a time of “post-truth” and “alternative facts.”

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