You are here

What The Media Headlines Fail To Tell Us

The media headline is the trigger of the reading act of the following text. In case of good titles, the initiated reading act can lead to good results. A good headline informs, incites and essentialises the text either in a serious, ludic or parodic way.
The headline, if non-functional, seems to suggest an agreement to the reader, by which it claims the “performative value of the promise to inform” [1]. However, the journalist, as a holder of the power to produce headlines, can use it not to inform, but to influence, as he (he or the employer) pleases, the reader’s opinion or action, relying on the language used. While the language can generate confer a huge persuasion potential to the headline.
The headline, as an essential part of the text, contains a range of operators, including actantial (the character centrality determined by the headline), temporal, spatial, event related, commentative ones etc. It is important to mention that in news headlines and informative materials commentative operators are unacceptable, as opposed to the titles of opinion articles but, in the end, the journalist is the one who decides. The reader’s prerogative is to accept or ignore such headlines.
We will analyse many news headlines and informative materials in order to establish to what extent they can support our credibility, starting with the understanding of the obvious fact that informative journalism must inform. ”To inform” understood in the narrow sense of the word, because disinformation and manipulation are also performed by means of information.
We will analyse some press headlines from the previous months, the time when general local elections took place, since Moldovan realities prove that during election campaigns the mass media capacity to resist the temptation of climbing the political barricades decreases, which does not happen in foreign journalism. The indicated period is even more relevant, if we invoke the importance of an appropriate information of the members of the governing class, for the quality of such class in the following four years and, implicitly, for our life quality.
We start by comparing two informative materials headlines from the same electoral event, broadcast by two important TV channels:
Tv7- “Serafim Urechean: We will build multi-storey car parks on the place where the central bus station is located.” [2].
Prime TV – “Urechean wants to demolish the central market. [3].
The first headline is a quote where the author - an electoral candidate - is indicated. Out of its three functions – the informative, appellative and opinion creating one, the headline entirely fulfils the informative one. Therefore, we can consider that the headline author did not pursue any other purpose than to honestly inform the viewer.
The second headline is shorter and more exciting, representing a combination of the three functions it can fulfil. However, reading the text we find a conflict between the headline and the content, because the protagonist (electoral candidate) wanted to transfer the central bus station and build a car park on its place. The headline does not entirely deceive, but rather distorts the truth, tells a half-truth. The used lexical and semantic elements make us think about the intentional character of media statements. The intentional character of a text means that someone has specific intentions to fulfil by means of the text. In this case, the headline author, by using certain lexical means, proves the communicative intention to determine the reader to adopt a certain attitude towards the person who “wants to demolish the central market”. The attitude can only be a negative one. Only if the reader reads the text (and it is not always the case), he can understand the author’s real intention, which is most certainly not to inform him.
The headline often bluntly lies to the reader. For example, an informative portal recently named a news i: “NATIONAL survey: Maia Sandu, the PRIME MINISTER of the Republic of Moldova!” [4]. The headline is exciting, and informative, since it addresses an event of general interest - the appointment of a new Government leader. But later, the news reader learns that, actually, ”NATIONAL survey” means a survey carried out on the publication’s web site with a total number of 620 participants, out of which 40% voted in favour of Maia Sandu’s candidacy as prime minister. The headline did not use the syntagm “National Newspaper Survey”; therefore we find an incorrect attitude towards the reader, regardless of the intention: to stimulate reading or to influence those on whom the prime minister’s appointment depends.
The following day after the second round of elections in Chisinau Municipality (June 29), when the prior counting of votes showed a clear advantage of the candidate to the mayor position D. Chirtoaca, compared to the candidate Zinaida Greceanîi, the same portal published a news report with the headline: ”Parallel counting by ”Promo-Lex”: Greceanîi would have obtain more votes” [5]. A bomb headline, if we consider the show making potential of dramatic situation changes during elections, so attractive to the reader. However, the news text dispels the expectations created by the headline, because, according to ”Promo-Lex” association, Z. Grecianîi, would have obtained only 24 (!) more votes than the official data indicated.
A first analysis of the headline and text reveals a complete harmony between them. However, something bothers and this “something” can be detected if we apply the contextuality principle. The headline does not contradict the content, but if we take into consideration the context, it makes you assume that the candidate would have obtained (the word is written in capital letters) more votes than the other candidate. This assumption triggered by the context stimulates you to read the news item. Finally, the reader understands that it was a waste of time. He would not have wasted it, if he was reading a headline like: Parallel counting carried out by “Promo-Lex” confirms the official results”.
Another portal publishes a news item in June: “Military American vehicles are crossing Moldova” [6]. The headline attracts attention and stimulates reading, especially because it operates with two strong human emotions: curiosity and fear. Fear is nourished by the syntagm used in the headline” crossing Moldova” (i. e. where the reader lives) and by the plural of military vehicles.
The headline is a cultural sign and as any sign, it triggers mental representations, which refer to real or imagined objects with a meaning for those who code (the journalists) or decode them (the readers). If we decode the ”cultural signs” within the news text we learn that a part time reporter noticed and filmed a single military vehicle running towards Sculeni crossing point of the Moldovan-Romanian border. Such a headline offers scientists the possibility to analyse it on many pages. As an old saying puts it: makes a mountain out of a molehill.
Among the headlines of electoral materials there are several with a parodic character, which is contrary to professional rules, because the journalists emphasize the commentative factors, imposing their own views. For instance, the headline of a report about two electoral candidates with the same name and surname broadcast by a national TV channel: “The clones’ battle in Ialoveni” [7]. The word “clone”, used incorrectly and with a pejorative connotation, reveals a clear attitude and not the author’s natural wish to inform the viewer. We find a similar situation in the headline: “In Voronin’s immortal words…” [8]. The use of this expression betrays the journalist’s intention to trigger an attitude towards the protagonist of the news item.
The journalists’ attitude is obvious from the headlines as well: ”Voronin’s Bloopers”, ”the Housekeeper” “With the Boat on Bic River” [9], ”Protest Among Garbage” [10]
”PCRM started counting the socialists’ money” [11] etc.
Some journalists, through the headlines, show their own attitude towards the news subject. It is the case of a portal, which published an article with the title: “the Academy of Sciences urges us to vote for chaos and devastation” [12]. Using a trope, the oxymoron, by which he connects incompatible terms, the author most certainly means to trigger the reader’s reaction to the unexpected character of the headline-expression. The expected reaction is for the reader to read the news article about the Academy that urges …to vote for D. Chirtoaca in the second round of elections. The journalist imposes in a clever way his opinion that D. Chirtoaca equals chaos and devastation. The headlines involve an element of anecdote - the unexpected end. It is another way to make the reader, an anecdote seeker, to read this news item, which, in fact, represents electoral propaganda against a candidate. There are headlines that cannot be included in a certain type. Two examples: ”( NO LUCK” ) A director from Cricova and her husband, detained by CAN after they requested a kickback of thousands of MDL [13] and ”Plahotniuc lost despite the disorders organized during the elections” [14]. Both headlines have, at least, two common characteristics: are illogical and can have a dangerous impact on the reader because, voluntarily or involuntarily, they inoculate the harmful opinion that you can ask for “kickback” and be lucky and that if you organize disorders you will win the elections.
We analysed several of many similar headlines from the domestic mass media. The analysis allows us to make a relevant conclusion: the authors rely on the inciting character of headlines seeking to accomplish two purposes: generate the reading of texts, even if these are misinforming, trigger certain attitudes in readers to maximize the ideological yield. To note: the informative yield was not mentioned in the conclusion. Therefore, it is up to the reader to pay attention to or ignore these types of headlines.

[2] informative edition ”Cotidian”, June 2 2015
[3] informative edition”Primele știri”, June 2 2015
[7] Tv Channel 2, informative edition”Reporter”, June 1 2015
[8] Tv Channel 2, informative edition”Reporter”, June 4 2015
[9] Prime Tv, informative edition”Primele știri”, June 4 2015
[10] Prime Tv, informative edition”Primele știri”, June 5 2015
[11] Accent Tv, informative edition Accentinfo, June 3 2015

media expert

This material is published within the project "Freedom of expression and media development in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and South Caucasus", implemented by CIJ during the period May-September 2015, supported by Deutsche Welle Akademie and financed by German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. The opinions expressed in this material belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the financer’s opinion.