• Justin McBrayer

Headline Ambiguity Creates Clickbait

You know that information peddlers make money by getting attention. That's how you sell subscriptions and advertising. It's as true for the hometown paper as it is for an online platform. And to grab attention, you need a gripping headline, preferably something that provokes outrage, wonder, anger, or some other tribal emotion.

Good headlines don't just get reader attention. They also increase your circulation. You probably won't be surprised to learn that most people share news stories on email and social media without even reading the story first. They see the headline and react to the clickbait. Studies routinely show that between 60% and 70% of links circulated have not been clicked by the people sharing them.


Given the economic incentives at hand, successful information and misinformation companies put a lot of time and effort into crafting headlines. And they routinely do so in ways that are deceptive in an effort to sell papers or expand their viewership. I've already made the point that a news item can be truthful and yet deceptive (I call this 'misleading information'). One way to write a headline that is truthful yet misleading is to use ambiguity about numbers.


Something is ambiguous when it has multiple meanings. When I tell you that I'm going to the bank, you don't know whether 'bank' refers to the side of the river or the financial institution. My report is ambiguous because I didn't clarify which of the options I meant.


In natural languages like English, reports about groups of things are often ambiguous in this way. For example, suppose I tell you that college students are broke. Which of the following did I mean?

All college students are broke.

Most college students are broke.

Many, but not most, college students are broke.

At least one college student is broke.

My initial statement was ambiguous--it could have meant any of these things.


Sometimes we say things like this and mean ALL. For example, my biology teacher taught me that mammals are warm-blooded. She didn't mean at least one or many but all.

Sometimes we mean MOST. For example, five-year-olds can't drive cars. That's true for the most part. But there are some fabulous exceptions!


And sometimes we mean MANY, but less than most. I've certainly said things like "college students are broke" before. But I'm not sure it's true that over 50% of them are. I think being broke is a really common thing--many college students are broke even if that number is somewhere south of 50%.


One of the first things we teach students in logic is to use a perfectly precise symbolization to disambiguate English sentences of this sort. When someone says "Sailors are proud,"that could be understood as a universal claim and symbolized like this: (x)(Sx Ↄ Px) or it could be a particular claim and symbolized like this: (Ǝx)(Sx • Px) [Cool, right?]


Here's the connection to fake news. Peddlers of information and misinformation have an incentive to grab your attention. And being ambiguous about the numbers in a headline is a sure-fire way to do that. Let me give you some examples.


"Faculty say Hannah-Jones tenure saga tarnished UNC-Chapel Hill's reputation,"As you might recall, one of the journalists behind the NYT 1619 project was offered a job at UNC-Chapel Hill, but the offer didn't come with tenure. This headline makes it sound like either ALL or MOST or at least MANY faculty think that the hiring debacle hurt the school's reputation. However, deeper in the story, we find out that "dozens" of faculty hold this view. Well, UNC-Chapel Hill has 2,159 instructional employees. So, from what the article tells us, we know that 24-36 of the 2,159 teachers feel this way. That's about 1.5%, hardly a compelling story. But a headline that read "2% of UNC-Chapel Hill faculty think the Hannah-Jones tenure saga sullied the school's reputaton" would get far fewer clicks. Better just to use 'faculty' and be ambiguous about the numbers.


"Snowbirds' use of COVID-19 vaccine supply has locals concerned in this Arizona desert town." This is a gripping headline--you instantly imagine a scene in which locals can't get innoculations for their children as wealthy out-of-towners crowd them out of local clinics. And no doubt there is at least one local person in Quartzsite, Arizona who thinks that snowbirds are taking what is rightfully theirs. But how many locals feel this way? All? MOST? MANY? We have no idea, and yet the ambiguous headline leads us towards the most outrageous interpretation.


Here's another example: "For college freshmen, pandemic results in a first-year unlike any other." The article recounts the trials endured by freshman as they started college during the pandemic. Quotes from individual students give examples of hardships faced by freshmen. But how many freshmen are we talking about? Did 20% experience unusual hardships? 50%? Most? I know lots of freshmen who had perfectly ordinary freshmen years during the pandemic. But that's not an attention-grabbing headline.


Conservative outlets play the same game. Fox news recently led with this headline: "Viewers React to Jimmy Kimmel calling Florida America's North Korea as Hateful Ignorance."No doubt some readers didn't care for Jimmy Kimmel's routine. And it's likely that some thought it nothing more than hateful ignorance. But how many? This headline doesn't say. By saying "Viewers React," it makes it sound like ALL or MOST or at least MANY viewers had this reaction, but there's no evidence of any of this.


Once you know to look for ambiguity in numbers, you'll see it everywhere. And it's almost always deployed in a news setting in a way that makes a story more clickable. Don't fall for it!

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