How the British press reported on the Brexit referendum outcome a year ago. Photo: iStock
The story behind the story is sometimes more interesting for readers. Photo: iStock

I confess: I am an awful headline writer.

When I worked as a reporter at Southeast Asia Globe, a current affairs magazine based in Phnom Penh, the last day of the editorial cycle was dedicated to headline writing – a rather exuberant day in which we gathered around the editor-in-chief’s desk, our seats reclined, take-away nosh at the ready and, occasionally, a can of beer close to hand, to inspect each article’s headline and make suggestions for improvements.

It was generally the most amusing day of the month, filled with puns and humor, but my former colleagues would no doubt remember my long absences as I searched for anything else to do.

Headlines are many journalists’ pet-hate. Most of us hacks have lost count of the number of times we shudder, “Read the text, not the headline!” or “Reader, do you know that most journalists don’t write their own headlines?”

Indeed, seldom do journalists bear responsibility for writing a headline; just as they usually have little say over which photographs are used in an article and how they are captioned. Put differently, the parts of an article most visible and most manipulative – the lead photo and headline – are frequently not the responsibility of the journalist at all. Conveniently, this also allows us to pass the buck.

Ample studies have proved what you probably already know: the more emotive and argumentative a headline, the more it’s likely to be read, especially on social media. According to an Al Jazeera report, one study found “six out of 10 people share content having only read the headline.”

Although, this is not new. Headlines started to grow in size and importance in the late 19th century, as the media industry became more competitive and when an interesting front-page headline sold papers. The competition on social media has only made matters worse.

As always, the New Yorker has published a fantastic article on this topic, “How headlines change the way we think,” which explores the research done by the psychologist Ullrich Ecker. Among other things, it found that “in the case of the factual articles, a misleading headline hurt a reader’s ability to recall the article’s details”.

And, as the New Yorker journalist put it, “what Ecker’s work shows, though, is that with the right – or, rather, wrong – headline, reading the article may not be enough. Even well-intentioned readers who do go on to read the entire piece may still be reacting in part to that initial formulation.”

But just as headlines influence the reader, so, too, does where an article appears in the newspaper – or where it appears in an online news site – which is also not a decision made by the journalist who wrote the story.

At a time when everyone seems to want to give their opinion on journalism ethics and when distrust in journalism is approaching a nadir – a recent survey of international thought during the Covid-19 pandemic found that across the world journalists “are the least trusted source of information regarding the pandemic” – something needs to give.

One problem, I sense, is that readers and viewers rarely get to understand the process that goes into journalism – and increasingly less so. If there’s a growing movement to know how your food is prepared, there should surely also be a desire to know how your news is made, too.

All too often, though, one only sees the end product; the finished article that appears on your Facebook feed or the finished, polished interview on the rolling-news station – and not, for instance, the more convivial tête-à-tête between the interviewer and interviewee before the cameras roll; not the instructions laid out by the interviewee or their staff of which topics are off limits; and not the “essential lie” of the interview situation, which is that usually one side is trying to advertise their own persona or product.

A hilarious introspection of the interview process, found on YouTube, between the comedian Richard Ayoade and journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy should be watched.

Growing up reading gonzo and first-person reporting – which is often wrongly accused of egoism – it always struck me that what happened to the journalist was just as interesting and revealing as the information they discovered, and this should be divulged to the reader whenever possible.

When I covered the US-North Korea peace talks from Hanoi in early 2019, for instance, far more interesting to me than what Trump and Kim were saying – which was very little and ended with no resolution, in any case – was how the host Vietnamese government was treating foreign journalists in attendance.

This included the Vietnamese prime minister reportedly deciding on which food to serve at the buffet of the press center, and a legion of state-run journos being told to descend on the foreign press to ask them for their opinions of Vietnam, which were naturally written up in the following day’s newspapers as foreign journalists love Vietnamese hospitality. 

Often how an interview is conducted and what it took to get the interview can be far more revealing of the subject matter than what is actually said, as well. When I started covering Vietnamese politics in 2014, one of my first interviews was with a dissident journalist; to get this talk, it required days of texts and calls to find an ideal and relatively secluded location, but then the interview almost never went ahead as my translator left the cafe before the interview began, out of fear of what might be said.

To me, this background revealed more about how people felt about the communist government’s repressive tactics than what the interviewee said.

Again, knowing what goes into creating a story is important in understanding the final product. In many ways, it provides some answers to our current fetishism with “faux objectivity” and “bias.” By our nature, we journalists must be discriminating.

For starters, a journalist has a certain space to fill with words, which is depressingly getting smaller each year. Often this is the answer when someone queries why a journalist didn’t include some important issues in an article. As someone who always writes more than I’m asked for, I subscribe to Abraham Lincoln’s excuse: “I could write shorter sermons but when I get started I’m too lazy to stop”.

So within, say, 1000 words, a journalist must do a number of things: provide the facts on what is happening, include some comments from sources and, if possible, some wider context. But in any given political article, for instance, it is possible to interview at least two dozen specialists on the subject, if not more, as well as to publish comments from dozens of politicians, advisers and so forth?

Yet we can only ever include a handful. Then what about vox-pops, which many editors like for some reason? If I was to stand out on the street now, there are perhaps 70 people to choose from to ask their opinion on some political matter. So the journalist must be selective, choosing whose opinion to quote, how these quotes fit the page and which information to include or not.

Then we also come to which issues are actually deemed newsworthy by editors – so which issues are actually to be reported on and published – and which are more important than others, something that can only be a subjective, discriminating choice. And we haven’t even begun to get into the editing process.

So by the time you scan the front-page of your newssheet, hundreds, if not thousands, of subjective decisions have been made at every stage of the process that decides what stories you are going to read and how they are presented – and how the reader will be subtly influenced, besides the headline itself.  

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno