Earlier this month, with fears of Ebola on the rise, CNN's website published an article called "Ebola in the air? A nightmare that could happen." The headline suggested that the Ebola virus, which only spreads through contact with bodily fluids, might mutate enough to be transmitted through a cough or a sneeze. But medical experts in the actual article disregarded the idea that Ebola would change its mode of transmission, calling it speculation "unsubstantiated by any evidence." On these grounds, the headline might well have read: "Ebola in the air? No need to worry."
CNN isn't the only media outlet guilty of writing misleading headlines on the topic of Ebola, or anything else for that matter. The crime is often seen as victimless or irrelevant so long as readers digest the article itself and form their own conclusions. To some extent that's true. But a new study demonstrates that the initial impressions formed from a headline can have a measurable influence on a person's thoughts and intentions, even if that person reads enough of the corresponding article to recognize the headline's flaws.
"A misleading headline can thus do damage despite genuine attempts to accurately comprehend an article," the researchers, led by psychologist Ullrich K. H. Ecker of the University of Western Australia, conclude in a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.
The researchers ran two experiments with multiple components, but let's focus on the part of their study most relevant to the Ebola headline problem. In one test, Ecker and colleagues asked participants to read several short articles. Some of these articles had slightly misleading headlines. Others had headlines that were broadly accurate in the context of the entire article.
Take one test article about the safety of consuming genetically modified food. The article quotes a scientific consortium backed by a national science academy as saying that the safety of such food "has been confirmed by many peer-reviewed studies world-wide." In an attempt to seem balanced, the article also quotes an organic-food advocate (and presumed opponent of GM foods) saying that the long-term health impacts of genetically modified food "remain undetermined."
Some test participants read this article below a fairly accurate (if terribly bland) headline: "GM foods are safe." Others read it below a headline that wasn't blatantly wrong but remained slightly misleading or imbalanced: "GM foods may pose long-term health risks." After reading the articles, test participants answered questions meant to gauge the influence the story might have left on their thoughts or potential behaviors.
The study results betray the subtle power of misleading headlines. Test participants who read articles with accurate (or "congruent") headlines tended to rely more on the content of the article itself when answering questions than those who saw misleading (or "incongruent") headlines. In the case of the genetically modified food, participants who read misleading headlines appeared more concerned with its safety than those who saw a congruent headline—showing a greater willingness to pay extra for non-GM foods, for one thing. This gap in perception occurred despite the fact that both groups read the same exact article in full. The headline had left its mental mark.
Ecker and colleagues believe the big problem with misleading headlines is that they're just that—misleading, as opposed to downright wrong. Correcting misinformation requires a lot of mental work. People are perfectly capable of doing that work once they recognize the need, but in the case of misleading headlines, that need isn't always clear. After all, the misleading headline about genetically modified food is true in a very strict sense: the foods may possess long-term health risks, in the same way the world may end tomorrow. As the researchers put it, misleading headlines may have served to nudge behavior "without readers noticing their slant."
"[C]orrecting the misinformation conveyed by a misleading headline is a difficult task," they write. "Particularly in cases of nonobvious misdirection, readers may not be aware of an inconsistency, and may thus not initiate any corrective updating."
There's a lot for general readers and media wonks alike to chew on here. For starters, the researchers assume a large degree of public trust in scientific expertise. If you don't trust science, you probably don't consider any of the above "misleading" headlines to be misleading at all. In this respect and others, the accuracy of a headline can be largely relative. For those who do believe in this whole science thing, the research serves as an indictment of stories that give undue weight to lay opinions in the name of journalistic balance and objectivity.
But the biggest takeaway—by no means a revolutionary one—is that media organizations leave an impression on a story before the very first word is read, based on their reputation and authority alone. The fact that an editor chooses to highlight a certain detail in a headline suggests to some readers that this detail carries more importance than all the others in a story. Irrelevant as this framing might seem, especially if the story that follows is fair and clear, such headlines could have a large and lasting impact on a reader's thoughts and decisions.
So while Ecker and colleagues hope to empower readers by raising general awareness of misleading headlines, the responsibility here really falls on editors and publishers. Everyone's concerned about Ebola, and for good reason. But misrepresenting a subject just to snap up readers—that's an equally scary contagion.