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The Dangers of 'Headline Thinking'

February 14, 2012, 10:23 AM

Thanks to everyone who read, commented on, and shared my first column, "The Beautiful Optimism of Libertarianism," last week. The responses were thoughtful and varied significantly; I hope to address the 'libertarian' mindset further in future columns. 

This week's column will focus on something I call 'headline thinking' -- the natural human tendency to "equate the actions of a certain person (or certain specific people) with the actions of a generic ‘label,’ such as the name of a country." This type of thinking underlies many of the challenges of speaking clearly about political and social matters, and I think it is essential to acknowledge and confront it. I hope you'll let me know in the comments if you agree with my assessment.


The Dangers of 'Headline Thinking'

Take a look at this headline from MSNBC (no author attributed):

At first glance, it seems clear enough. But if I take a moment to consider it, the following question arises: Who is going to announce a ‘very major’ nuclear advance? “Iran?” How can “Iran” announce something?

This question may seem silly at first. Of course the author of the headline means that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, is about to announce this ‘very major’ nuclear advance. But then why doesn’t the author say Ahmadinejad?

Take a look at the two headlines side-by-side:

Iran to announce ‘very major’ nuclear advance

Ahmadinejad to announce ‘very major’ nuclear advance

Which one conjures up a clearer meaning and which one suggests a generic, vague idea? In this case, the author, perhaps unwittingly, is saying that the country named “Iran” -- and I’m not sure if this means all of the people comprising “Iran” or the geographical terrain commonly referred to as “Iran” -- is about to announce a ‘very major’ nuclear advance. This seems absurd, of course, but what else could the author be saying? Could the author possibly believe that the words “Iran” and “Ahmadinejad” are interchangable?

This type of unclear writing is an example of what I call ‘headline thinking,’ which causes one to equate the actions of a certain person (or certain specific people) with the actions of a generic ‘label,’ such as the name of a country -- a label which then immediately takes on a singular, concrete quality in the reader’s mind, as if the label itself is doing something. In this case, the author of the headline writes “Iran” instead of “Ahmadinejad,” and unless the reader is diligent to clarify the meaning of the word “Iran” before allowing the idea to concretize, it is easy to feel that “Iran” itself is about to announce a ‘very major’ nuclear advance. However, upon closer investigation of this headline the reader can only come to one of four conclusions:

1. “Iran” and “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” are the same thing

2. All of the people comprising “Iran” are about to announce a ‘very major’ nuclear advance

3. The geographical terrain called “Iran” is about to announce a ‘very major’ nuclear advance

4. A separate entity -- neither people nor terrain -- called “Iran” is about to announce a ‘very major’ nuclear advance

Clearly, all four of these understandings are absurd, and yet it still may seem that the original headline -- “Iran to announce ‘very major’ nuclear advance” -- refers to something tangible and concrete. This is because people are often unaware of their own ‘headline thinking' and have not yet developed the ability to see past it.

The language one uses both indicates and influences the way one thinks. Without at least recognizing one’s own tendency to engage in ‘headline thinking’ -- and without training oneself to recognize and question this type of thinking when it arises -- one will be unable to distinguish the actions of an individual from the actions of a generic ‘label.’ In the headline above, it is easy to read the word “Iran” and continue reading without questioning who or what the author is referring to, but upon closer inspection it is clear that the word points to nothing specific.

I plan to write more next week about how ‘headline thinking’ often allows people in positions of political and corporate power to hide behind a ‘label’ and avoid taking responsibility for their actions.


The Dangers of 'Headline Th...

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