News organizations are in the business of making money. And making money requires having an audience. That means everyone in the news business--from bloggers to Fox News to the New York Times--has an incentive to report on stories that will generate an audience.
It's perfectly obvious that this incentive doesn't line up neatly with the truth. You can build an audience with half-truths and fiction, too. This is part of the story about why our fake news crisis is so bad.
Despite this, mainstream news outlets usually stick to the truth. But which aspects of the truth get told? Any given story has a thousand and one different angles. There are so many details that a writer or reporter can't simply cover them all. Question: which angle do you choose? Answer: the angle that will boost your readership.
This is a problem. Human thinking is subject to a bias called a framing effect. In brief, how information is presented often affects what we think and how we act. For example, suppose a cancer drug saves lives in 70% of patients who use it. That means 30% of patients who take the drug die anyway. But if you describe the drug using the percentage of people who are saved rather than lost, you're far more likely to convince people to take it. It shouldn't matter, but it does. That's the framing effect in action.
Putting these points together, journalists have to select an angle for any given story and yet the angle they choose affects how we understand the world.
We see this tradeoff most clearly in headlines. Headlines must be short, punchy, and likely to attract an audience. At the same time, headlines serve to frame the story that follows. Is the headline "Miracle drug saves 70% of cancer patients?" or "Almost a third of patients die in failed drug trial"? Which you choose makes a big difference to the reader's takeaway.
Left-leaning journalists have rightly called out right-leaning media for using framing effects. For example, when describing the immigrant situation at the southern border as a wave or surge uses the language of natural disasters in a way that dehumanizes people. And I've written on how left-leaning journalists can provide biased news coverage by framing in their stories.
But the general lesson applies to headlines, too. Here are some particularly egregious examples of headline framing from partisan outlets across the spectrum:
"Texas highway crash kills 8 illegal immigrants, investigators say," (Fox News). No doubt it was true that the victims were illegal immigrants, but why is that feature relevant to the story? It's not. But it's relevant to Fox News' readership.
"A White security guard shot a Black man to death, police say, reportedly over loud music," (Washington Post). This title makes a point of flagging the race of both the shooter and the victim. Those features might be relevant to the situation--there's been an obvious uptick in violence against members of the Black community. But framing the story this way almost ensures that readers will interpret the event as racist.
"A 75-year-old Asian American man was robbed, shoved on his daily walk," (Washington Post). You wouldn't think that a mugging in Oakland would make national news, but the article makes clear that some activists consider the incident an example of anti-Asian sentiment being whipped up by those on the right. The reporter apparently agrees: framing the story in terms of the person's age and ethnicity makes it more likely that the reader will think that these features are relevant.
"Why do Democrats hate West Virginia?" (Wall Street Journal) I doubt many Democrats have any feelings at all towards West Virginia, much less hate. But framing the story in this way is sure to outrage many conservative readers.
"A transgender girl struggles to find her voice as lawmakers attack her right to exist," (Washington Post). Really? Conservative legislators think that the girl has no right to live? Come on!
Of course, it's inevitable that we rely on headlines. And it's just as inevitable that all headlines frame. (Even mine--notice I used the word 'clickbait' in my title to convey a sense of dishonest advertising.) So, what do we do?
Here's some advice: after reading a headline, ask yourself how the issue is framed before you read the story. What does the title convey? Why are these the right details to include? How does the title make me feel? (Be cautious if it makes you feel angry, outraged, or sad.) And most of all, how would an outlet with a different political, religious, or other identity frame the story differently? Like throwing dust on the invisible man, reflecting on these questions can bring a headline's frame into the light.