The Corpus Callosum

Headlines as Approximations of Truth

Here are two headlines about the same subject:

Help Preschoolers with ADHD

Psych Central News Editor
Tuesday, Oct, 17, 2006

warns of risks of preschool Ritalin

Associated Press
Posted on Fri, Oct. 20, 2006

Both articles were written about the same journal article, an
NIMH-sponsored study published in the Journal of the American Academy
of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Both headlines are accurate.  The study found that the drug
help most of the kids, and it also found that about 11% of the kids
were withdrawn from treatment because of adverse effects.  No
surprises there.  

This pair of headlines illustrates something that is already fairly
well known: articles and headlines can be written with opposite spin.

What is more troubling is this: with the growth of headline-oriented
news, I worry that it is becoming easier for the media to manipulate
people simply by slanting the headlines.  

The corollary of
this is
that if an organization gets to be skilled at prompting news
organizations to write certain headlines, then that organization has a
powerful tool to use for propaganda.

What is worse, is that headlines can be used to generate issues where
none exist.  Certain organizations have gotten to be good at
trumpeting issues specifically to create an us-versus-them mentality,
and energize their constituents.  

A case in point is something I saw on Fox News the other day.
 Like everyone else, they were reporting on the recent
demographic report that the population of the USA had reached 300
million.  Then, they showed a graphic: “But will the
300,000,001st be an Illegal?”

At first, I did not understand the whole emphasis on illegal
immigration.  Sure, it is an issue, but we have lots of
problems in this country, and that one is not particularly high on the
list.  But it does create an us-versus-them mentality, which
for some reason, gets people all worked up.  I guess it is
sort of like the gay marriage thing, in that there is no particular
reason for most people to care, but it is possible to get some people
all worked up about it.

Getting back to the matter of headline news, I think a lot of people
have decent critical thinking skills, but in order to use those skills,
a person has to read the whole article.  Or, preferably,
different articles about the same thing.