News Headlines and the Misrepresentation that Lies Within

In our contemporary age of instant polling and surfing headlines, there is a great need to be responsible about the first impression that headlines create.

Beyond the headlines. Credit: Shome Basu

Beyond the headlines. Credit: Shome Basu

News headlines have had the power to potentially mislead information consumers for a long time – from much before the time social media began generating ‘news’ incessantly and TV sound bytes subsumed the function performed by in-depth information. But never before did headlines have such immense power in driving the content of news as they do today, regardless of whether their brief summations misrepresent actual contexts or even disseminate near-erroneous information.

A spate of incidents in the recent past point to this growing and alarming trend of usurping contextual representation in favour of sensational, controversial, and even misleading headlines. For instance, recently, two lines extracted out of a 15-minute presentation made by the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar in a seminar organised by the Centre of Historical Studies on March 28, stirred a widespread controversy

At the centre of the raging dispute was that Kumar drew distinctions between the riots under the Congress government in 1984 and in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat in 2002, as well as the Emergency in 1975 and tendencies towards fascism under the present government. But before making these controversial (and many would say problematic) formulations, Kumar also said: “Today we have to stand in defence of democracy and not to support one party or another. We have to protect public university and public sector.”

In fact, much of the presentation that he made in the “Voices of Azaadi” seminar organised in memory of historian Bipan Chandra – who was known to be an intellectual advocate of anti-communalist Congress-Left unity – addressed questions engaging a broad spectrum of dissenting views. According to Kumar, such alliances assume critical importance in the present context where communal forces have launched an all-round assault on the constitution. But the alliance that he advocated in his speech was not with political parties. Rather, he rooted for an alliance with broader “social and political movements.”

Many among us may join issue with Kumar’s thesis on both the question of fascism and Emergency and the riots in 1984 and 2002. But that merits a separate discussion. For the moment, I am interested in the nature of media representation, where an entire presentation was squeezed into a headline, a breaking-news ticker, a tweet. Taken out of context, Kumar’s quotes were made to appear synonymous with the usual rhetorical digs that Congress party spokespersons take at the BJP. Without any reference to the context, the media headlines appeared to be deliberately misleading or misdirecting: “Kanhaiya Kumar says 1984 was different from 2002.”

There is of course, nothing novel about an occurrence like this. Three years ago, political psychologist Ashis Nandy stirred up a storm of controversy at the Jaipur Literary Festival. During a discussion at the Festival, Nandy supposedly said: “The fact is that most of the corrupt come from the OBC, SCs and now increasingly STs.” Without locating his remark in the context of the larger discussion at the festival, commentators on social media blew his clumsily worded claims into a sensational political row. And sure enough, the mainstream media did not lag much behind, immediately leveraging his comments into a suitable headline: ‘Top social scientist makes casteist remarks.’

Television channels repeatedly played Nandy’s out-of-context, truncated statement to reinforce outrage in the public sphere. In reality, Nandy had presented a far more complex argument on political corruption, which, he perceived to be an equaliser for the rich and the poor. “It will be an undignified and vulgar statement but the fact is that most of the corrupt come from the OBC, the SCs and now increasingly STs. As long as this is the case, the Indian republic will survive”, the academic said. The media, however, conveniently excluded the first and last parts of Nandy’s presentation.

Between 2013 and 2016, headline hunting has only got worse. Journalists are encouraged to think more in terms of headlines and less in terms of complex facts and nuanced contexts. Amidst the maddening and competitive rush to grab maximum eyeballs, headlines are routinely reduced to misrepresentations of what actually happened. Circulation is king. In fact, it may even be argued that media has institutionalised such misrepresentations by summarily eliminating the broader contexts in which the controversies unfold. TV debates on primetime routinely rehearse this fact – 60 minutes of ‘debate’ with spokespersons and ideologues shouting each other down, without any attempt to frame the problem at hand in detail. Consider another, recent example.

On March 20, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor delivered a lecture on nationalism before students at the JNU campus. By next day, television networks and social media platforms were going hammer and tongs at Tharoor for apparently drawing an analogy between Bhagat Singh and Kanhaiya Kumar. A report in the Indian Express on March 22 ran the following headline: “Kanhaiya has qualities like Bhagat Singh, says Shashi Tharoor; BJP angry, Cong stays away.” The report included numerous damning tweets by various famous people and the online version included a by now standard ‘reaction poll’ where readers could react to the news, ranging from ‘angry’ to ‘amused.’ Television anchors held prime time discussions on Tharoor’s “audacity” to make such a comparison.

But what was the context in which Tharoor made such a seemingly bizarre statement – especially while delivering a serious lecture on nationalism? Here’s how Tharoor said what he did at the JNU meeting. Mentioning that he himself has sought in parliament, an amendment to the legislative provision on sedition, Tharoor said: “The biggest victims of sedition were Nehru, Gangadhar Tilak …” He was then interrupted by students chanting Bhagat Singh’s name and urging him to include him in the list of victims of sedition. Going along with the students, Tharoor said with a smile: “Yeah – Bhagat Singh – Bhagat Singh was a Kanhaiya Kumar of his time.” And the students cheered him on. Clearly, Tharoor did not offer a serious comparison between the two unlikely figures; neither did he bring up the analogy on his own. Prodded by a lively audience, Tharoor made the comment in a light hearted vein.

It would be naïve to dismiss headlines as having limited influence on media consumers. In her article ‘How Headlines Change the Way We Think’ in the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova argues that “psychologists have long known that first impressions really do matter – what we see, hear, feel, or experience in our first encounter with something colours how we process the rest of it. Articles are no exception. And just as people can manage the impression that they make through their choice of attire, so, too, can the crafting of the headline subtly shift the perception of the text that follows. By drawing attention to certain details or facts, a headline can affect what existing knowledge is activated in your head.”

Konnikova cites the example of a headline from an article on air pollution in the UK-based paper Daily Express. “Air pollution now the leading cause of lung cancer” ran the headline while the article reported that even as pollution was a leading “environmental” cause for cancer, other causes like smoking, are still “the main culprits.” That, of course, is a subtler matter than the instance I have thus far recounted.

It is important to remember that the process of correcting misinformation can often be more difficult than the process of correcting blatantly false information, especially since misinformation might contain grains of truth spun into minor but damaging inconsistencies. It is equally important to remember that misinformation tends to persist in memory even after alternative narratives have been presented in media.

In our contemporary age of instant polling and surfing headlines, there is a great need to be responsible about the first impression that headlines create. Writing in The Guardian, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argues that we live in a culture with “a crisis of attentiveness. When information is bountiful, attention is limited and precious. Unlike our evolutionary ancestors, who were probably rewarded for absorbing as much of their sensory surroundings as they possibly could, what’s adaptive today is the ability to ignore our distracting environments.”