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Insert Fact-Based, No-Spin Headline Here

Meredith Eaton

Meredith Eaton

Tell me if this happens to you…because it happens to me all the time.

I’ll be scrolling through my news feed, or the homepage of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or what have you, and I’ll stop.

A headline will have caught my attention, and sometimes I’ll even say something aloud in disbelief (“No way!”, “Whaaat?”, “That can’t be.”) before clicking through to the article, only to find out that the title that solicited that gut reaction, isn’t actually a slant I would’ve assumed, or it doesn’t even correctly portray the situation at hand.

As media consumers, it can be difficult at times to understand whether what we’re reading is completely accurate.

It’s all too easy to be swayed by catchy headlines that try to elicit an emotional response, without knowing what to look for. That’s why education, notably the concept of media literacy, has been so important, and it’s become essential amid the rise of fake news.

To be fair, it’s a tall ask for anyone to be completely objective. Everyone, even journalists, comes at life with a unique perspective, which informs how we approach a topic or story. But, reporters are viewed as fact-finders and fact-distributors, so limiting bias is an important part of the job.

Yet, even seemingly harmless spin seems to slip into headlines and news reports.

Following the events of the 2016 election cycle, major news organizations have seen surging subscription numbers as weary media consumers sought out more reliable news sources. But, it’s important to understand that even these more reputable sources sometimes spin, or even sensationalize, the news. Do you know what to look for?

Spin is becoming pervasive

Take this Washington Post headline from late this summer, for example: “North Korean missile flies over Japan, escalating tensions and prompting an angry response from Tokyo.” The New York Times, however, reported the same story by saying, “North Korea Fires Missile Over Japan.”

Do you spot the difference? The first didn’t simply state the facts, but also included words designed to elicit an emotional response.

Or, consider this news story: The Cook County Board in Chicago recently voted to repeal a fledgling tax on sodas and sugary drinks. Reuters’ headline asserted, “Big Soda scores victory as Chicago-area tax repealed.” In contrast, the local Chicago Tribune simply stated, “Cook County Board repeals pop tax.”

Who is giving you the facts, and who is spinning the story to be a ‘win’ for one of the subjects?

How did news outlets handle the recent firing of Red Sox manager John Farrell? Sports Illustrated reported the facts: “Red Sox Fire Manager John Farrell,” while The Washington Post spun the story, saying that the “Red Sox’s back-to-back playoff exits, more than clubhouse issues, cost John Farrell his job.”

Why it’s so important to stick to the facts

In a digital-focused world, newspapers are competing to attract readers, especially digital readers.

The rivalry between The Washington Post and The New York Times, for instance, has intensified as the two newspapers battle for the most recent scoop.

Reporting on breaking news surely helps draw readers and attention, but reporters must strive to keep their stories factual and ethical. But, since reporters at some media companies are incentivized based on how many clicks their stories get, and how much traffic they generate, it’s still a cause for concern.

Being a trustworthy source is one way news organizations can establish and maintain credibility. When news breaks, readers want to know that they can go to their trusted website or paper of choice for the most recent confirmed facts, and that it won’t be stoking fear or anger in hopes of drumming up more readership.

Give readers the facts, and trust them to draw their own conclusions.

Should PR pros look twice too?

This is an interesting conundrum for PR practitioners.

While we never condone “spin” in the old sense of intentionally altering the story to put forth a better image, we do try to provoke action. That action may be for a reporter to open our email pitch, or for a reader to download a whitepaper, or for publications to syndicate a press release, etc. etc.

But, do we need an emotionally-charged or sensationalized title to do that?

PR pros can likely cut down on unnecessary adjectives, descriptions and verbiage to get to the heart of the story that much faster, and with similar success. After all, how often have you written or read things like “industry first,” “next generation,” “disruptive,” or “cutting edge” without knowing what the story was really all about?

The facts and newsworthiness of the content will speak for themselves and hold just as much intrigue if they’re worthy, or not if they’re not. The readers and reporters that PR pros and their clients care most about won’t need headlines full of buzz words. If they are your true target audiences, they’ll be drawn to the topic or content for what it is.

We just need to get it in front of the right people, at the right time, in the right medium, and with the most compelling, fact-based language possible!

Piece of cake, right?

This piece was first published on Muck Rack Daily here.