Headlines serve an obvious purpose of attracting attention, being the signpost to further reading. But in the context of a readership heavily disinclined to study the angles and dig deeper — indeed, to even read the entire article itself — a heavy responsibility now falls on the headline to assert the article’s core truth claims and frame the content accurately. In essence, the entirety of journalistic integrity now rests upon the semantics of signposts.
Increased attunement to the shaping of headlines with respect to the article’s content and truth claims put the following Reuters article, Organic Food is No Healthier, Study Finds
, into my disapproving purview.
This article (also posted on MSN
) describes a study done on the nutritional content based on vitamin and mineral availability in conventional versus organically grown produce.
The headline’s truth statement skews both the issue of what’s “healthy” about food and puts the content in a certain expectational framework not found in the content.
An excerpt (emphasis mine):
“A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance,” said Alan Dangour, one of the report’s authors. “Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.”
Any journalist in the health arena knows full well, or should, that the consumer decision to gravitate towards “more healthy” produce has very little to do with alleged tallies of vitamins and minerals, and everything to do with the fear of contamination with pesticides, antimicrobials, and other lovely value-added proposals
that may or may not decrease the overall well-being of oneself and one’s family. The true question of organic purchasing is not, “is this food more nutritious than the cheaper food”, but rather, “is all the extra gook they grew and shipped this produce with going to outweigh the goodness of this vegetable I’m going to the trouble to buy, prepare, and eat?”
Whenever an article’s headline makes such a slight but meaningful shift away from its contents’ truth claims, I have to think at least one of the following things about the writer of the article:
- He doesn’t consider the headline to be part of the truth statements made in the article — in other words, all semantics are fair play, words are fully interchangeable, etc.
- She doesn’t actually understand the semantics of her own article.
- He doesn’t particularly care about the truth claims of his article.
…none of which serve to recommend the writer in question too well.
The point of all this polemic: WORDS MEAN THINGS — even the words meant to draw attention to other words.
What’s at stake here? Why care?
Most people only read the headlines (consider the popularity of Twitter). And those who read further will have the information they were seeded with in the headline framed by that initial statement. And in the morning at the watercooler, that’s the information, the core truth statement, that will get passed around.
The headline could have read, “Organic food no more nutritious…” and would have reflected much more accurately the study’s results. Sure, it’s not quite as snappy, but it’s more honest journalism.
Headlines are arguments too — arguably the most potent and far-reaching ones you will write. Consider them carefully… just as I’ve considered the headline to this blog post.
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