This Headline Will Totally Mislead You

By
Victorious presidential candidate Pres. Harry Truman jubilantly displaying erroneous CHICAGO DAILY TRIBUNE w. headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN which overconfident Republican editors had rushed to print on election night, standing on his campaign train platform.
Photo: W. Eugene Smith/Time Life Pictures

A new study out of Australia takes on misleading headlines and confirms the thing that every online editor knows but hates to acknowledge: Most people either don’t really read past the headline, or, at least, they don’t retain much information from the story besides the headline. The study will be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. 

The researchers showed four short articles to 51 undergraduate students from the University of Western Australia. One of those articles, for example, was about genetically modified foods; it presented several opinions on GMO foods, getting into some of the public’s concerns about safety, but then included quotes from scientists like this one: “There is no logical reason they should be of any health concern.”

Pretty clear. But some of the students got a version of this article with the headline “GM Foods May Pose Long-Term Health Risks”; others saw the boring but accurate “GM Foods Are Safe.” Sure enough, those who saw the headline emphasizing the health concerns tended to remember more about the potential risks than the safety. 

The researchers, led by Ulrick K. H. Ecker, say that most studies done in this area have paired articles with more blatantly false headlines, so their research is a little different. These headlines “used relatively common ‘cherry-picking,’ which can be essentially misleading without … being manifestly false,” the authors write. For you, readers, the lesson is to be careful and thoughtful about what you read out there; for me, as a writer of headlines — honestly, it’s a reminder to cool it on the clickbait sometimes.