January 30, 2024

What Conclusion Can Be Drawn Based on the Headline?

A great headline gets your readers' attention. It answers their questions and draws them in so they can read your content. But even if your article is fantastic, you'll never get the full impact of what you wanted if your headline misdirects your audience.

Most journalists have heard aggrieved, enraged, or dismissive comments from people who were upset with an article they read and reacted solely on the basis of the headline alone. They want to scream, "Read the article!" But, as new research suggests, it might not be enough.

In a series of experiments, Ullrich Ecker, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Western Australia, has been exploring how slight—and slightly misleading—shifts in headlines can affect reading. He had participants read two factual articles and two opinion pieces with the same content. The only variable was the headline, which was manipulated to either highlight the smaller of two trends (for example, a small rise in burglary rates) or the larger trend (for instance, a long-term decline in burglary rates).

If the content matched the initial impression the reader formed from the headline, then their reaction was correct. But if the content was less than ideal, the misperception still influenced their response—and this was true even when the content had been corrected in the caption of the photo. So, it's important to consider how your headlines will be perceived before you publish them. It's also worth thinking about how you structure your content so that it can meet the needs of your audience.

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