Writers across the world struggle with writing the perfect headline. We’re taught in school that it needs to be witty, engaging, and tickle the reader’s curiosity so they read further on. We think we know how important it is. A bad line will not only stop anyone from reading what we wrote, but it can also affect how we remember and process an article.
Ullrich Ecker a psychologist at the University of Western Australia, conducted two studies about misleading headlines and the how they affect readers. In the first study, he found that if a biased headline influences a reader that bias is what they will remember about the article even if they are corrected later. In a second study he discovered that misleading headlines in factual stories were easier to correct. However, a misleading headline in an opinion piece could prevent the reader from even forming a proper conclusion about what was written!
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A misleading headline usually has two criteria:
- It omits a critical piece of information about the article
- It exaggerates to mislead the reader
The headlines to clickbait stories that pollute our Facebook pages are perfect examples of the first. Whenever you see a headline that leads with, “This Hollywood Starlet Was Caught…” You have a headline omitting critical information. Who did what? We don’t know, but we can find out if we click the headline and drive dollars to the writer’s wallet with our impression.
The second is more common in political attack pieces that misconstrue a politician’s words to either ridicule them or scare the audience. The goal is create a sensationalist headline that stirs up the reader’s emotions. The details of the story could be different than the headline, but the reader has already been dyed with expectations.
There’s an effort by Facebook to clamp down on sensationalist, misleading headlines that clog people’s feeds. They’ve analyzed thousands of article headlines and have weeded out common clickbait headlines like, “You Won’t Believe What… AMAZING!” However, if you focus on writing clear, informative headlines, it’ll be nothing to worry about.
Ash Reed goes into a lot of detail on the perils of modern headline writing and how to sculpt an amazing headline. His poignant tips take into account the content of a piece, the medium which it is shared through, and how your articles might need multiple headlines.