In the last few years, the top complaint of those pushing for greater accuracy in news coverage of Israel has been with misleading headlines. Often, the news article underneath the headlines give a proper accounting of the event, yet the fear is that many people will just skim the news and the headlines will carry much more weight in how Israel is perceived.
Last week, a number of Palestinians, armed with deadly weapons, breached the border fence between Israel and the Gaza strip. They were eventually spotted by Israeli military units who opened fire and captured them.
The most accurate headline to introduce an article detailing these events would have centered on the fact that armed terrorists came very close to committing mass murder.
Yet what we saw was headlines detailing the Israeli military’s response to the incident. Typical was the Associated Press headline:
Israeli military captures 3 armed infiltrators from Gaza
Granted, its not a terrible summation. However, the casual reader who scans the news and does not read the article will at best understand the event as a minor border incident. The reader will not understand that terrorists, armed with rifles and grenades, cut through the fence and travelled 30 kilometers within Israel to the outskirts of a major military base.
That’s a lot of information to convey in a few words, but it could have been better.
The real frustrations occur when there is a terrorist attack and an Israeli response. It is quite common to see headlines such as “Palestinian shot dead after attack” or “1 Israeli and 3 Palestinians killed in attacks on West Bank.”
Yes the above headlines are factually correct. Yet, they leave out the information that the Palestinian casualties occurred as a response to terrorist attacks, the most salient feature of the events.
It is clear from the articles that accompanied these headlines that the facts were known (and in fact, in most cases, the articles gave all the relevant information. So the question is why aren’t headlines more accurate?
We often forget that news is a business, not a public utility. Our expectations are that every visible facet of major media reporting will be the most accurate. When it isn’t, we often believe that the reason is based on the bias of the editors. And that could be true.
But the fact is that news is a business. In the age of the internet, the time between an event occurring and being covered can literally be seconds. There are thousands of news companies trying to get a competitive advantage.
When news breaks, anyone has instant access to a huge range of articles describing the event. How does a publication get the clicks to its coverage?
The most prominent way is through headlines that tease and entice the viewer to click. The most extreme examples are from the less credible companies desperate for readership, hence headlines that are shocking and blatantly untrue.
But even the mainstream media use the tactic to some degree. They know that there is a large audience of people who will be more attracted to reports of possible Israeli misdeeds, especially if there are casualties. Who can resist the modern “David and Goliath” narrative where the powerless Palestinian civilians are seen as the heroic David to the powerful Israeli army’s Golliath?
More succinctly, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Thanks to the skills of the Israeli army, it is more likely for the terrorists to be doing the bleeding than their intended victim (in most cases).
But if a news publication shies away from shock value in its headlines, it risks being ignored. Like any competitive company, the news media relies on marketing to sell its product.
It’s a fine line and I don’t envy the editors who must balance the demand for accuracy with the demand for clicks.
As far as coverage of Israel is concerned, one answer is that news consumers can send a quick email to publications that publish misleading headlines. After all, the more these companies know that there is a significant mass of people demanding better headlines, the more they can combine accuracy and marketing.
One of the positive features of the internet instant news cycle is the ability of readers to also give instant feedback. There are many cases of headlines being changed specifically because of a barrage of complaints. With email, Twitter, Facebook, etc., there are many tools news consumers can use to make their voices heard.