We Get Our Information From Headlines

This 2014 article from The Washington Post says it all: Americans read headlines. And not much else. This 2013 post on Slate is entertaining and informative, if you read it all the way through, which apparently you won’t: You Won’t Finish This Article.

As a writer who tries to inform and educate, it’s frustrating. As a reader, it’s completely understandable.

And as a man of a certain age, I’ll also claim that it’s nothing new.

One of the more common frustrations out on Ask Leo! is reading the comments only to find some that clearly indicate that poster didn’t read the article at all, or didn’t read it completely. I’m talking about comments that ask questions explicitly answered by the article, or comments that try to add value, but only duplicate what the post already stated. “Please read the article you just commented on” is a response ny assistants and I make on a regular basis.

As I said, as someone who’s trying to help people, it’s frustrating when some will take the time to comment, without having taken the time to read what they’re commenting on. Adding to that frustration is the realization that those who comment represent only the tip of the iceberg – the vast majority will not have have read the entire article even if doing so would have helped them.

As a consumer of information, however, I get it. We live in an era in which we’re flooded with headlines and articles begging to be read. Reading only the headline, or skimming the first part of some content to see if it’s of interest or applicability makes total sense. In fact, it’s the only practical way most of us can sift through the wave upon wave of information headed in our direction.

The problem is we’re doing more than than just sifting the information; we’re consuming the headlines as if we had consumed the entire content. We read a catchy title and think we understand what the article will say, without actually reading it. That alone is bad enough, but then we react, to only that headline. Then we share, based only on that title. The implication of reacting or sharing is that we’re doing so based on the content, when in fact we’ve acted only on what marketers might refer to as “the tease”.

Here’s the kicker: marketing experts know this. Where in the past the headline’s purpose was to get you to read the content (or click through to an article), today its purpose is to get you to react. To get you to share. To get you to “like”. “Headline marketing,” you might call it.

As this most recent election cycle has shown us, none are as successful at it as politicians.

Rather than expecting us to become knowledgeable on complex issues and form opinions on those issues, they’ve purposely and repeatedly narrowed their focus to headlines, catch phrases, and sound bites, with little regard to the accuracy thereof.

And it worked. Rather than become outraged at legitimate issues that require deeper thought and understanding, a large portion of the electorate simply voted based on the headlines and article titles they saw fly by. Deeper explanations were not only ignored, but countered – by louder and more outrageous headlines and catch phrases.

Our attention has always been a precious resource. The time we invest in understanding something is always something we’ve balanced against the other demands of life. Scanning the news and cherry-picking what’s interesting or relevant is nothing new – noone read a newspaper cover to cover, after all. But most read something.

That’s where things seem to have changed. Standing in the flood of information most now read only headlines, (and a lot of them),  and consider that “being informed”.

As a reader I resolve to read more deeply. I’ll still cherry-pick where I’m going to invest my time, but headlines are clearly not enough.

And I’ll at least read before I comment, and respectfully request that you do the same.

As a publisher I remain in a quandary; wondering how much information I can stuff into only a headline.