Suppose you saw an article headline saying, “President admits activity was criminal in nature.” If you loath the president, you are likely to infer that the activity was on the part of the administration and might rush to post the article on Facebook or tweet it before reading the article. If you support the president, you are likely to interpret the headline in a way favorable to the president. You might assume the activity was by some enemy of the president or perhaps someone in the administration who betrayed the president with their misdeeds. You might even conclude that it must be fake news. If you are a critical thinker, you would read the article and assess its credibility before drawing an inference about the alleged criminal activity. This headline is an example of a misleading headline—although it is relative mild compared to what you would see in the wild. Rather different articles could follow the same headline.
Saying “the president admits” would tend to lead people to think the president is involved in the criminal activity in some manner; either that he committed the act, or someone connected to him did so. But the facts in the article beneath the headline could be rather different from what it seems to imply. For example, the article might state that the president is agreeing that an act of violence committed by someone claiming to be his supporter was a crime. As another example, the headline could be extremely misleading—the president might have made a quick remark about an action completely unrelated to him that he agreed is a crime.
For the sake of this essay I will adopt the general term of “headlining” to cover three aspects of misleading headlines.
The first is the intentional creation of a misleading headline as a rhetorical technique. A misleading headline is not a complete fabrication—that would simply be lying. A misleading headline has some connection to the truth but is such that it is aimed to deceive the audience in some manner. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as using hyperbole (extravagant exaggeration), downplaying (casting it as less serious or less important), using vague or ambiguous wording, or other rhetorical techniques.
There are, obviously, various reasons to create misleading headlines and more than one can be in play at a time. One common reason is to create a clickbait headline to generate ad revenue; the idea is that an honest headline would not be as interesting or appealing to the target. I am not saying that headlines should be written in a dull or unappealing manner and a headline that might seem misleading could be defended on the grounds that the intent was to be interesting rather than to mislead. While there will be unclear cases, we can often sort out the intentionally misleading headlines from those honestly written with the intent to be interesting and appealing. It is also worth noting that writers can create misleading headlines unintentionally due to a failure of skill rather than a failure of honesty.
Another reason for a misleading headline is as a tool to influence the audience without using outright falsehood. Many biased sites/organizations have two seemingly conflicting goals. The first is to push a specific narrative onto their audience and shape their beliefs. The second is to still retain some credibility as source of true information. Or at least plausible deniability. Misleading headlines sitting atop factually correct stories allow a site to achieve both goals: the headlines allow them to mislead their targets while the factually correct stories allow them to counter criticism and claim they are doing truthful reporting. That is, if someone calls them out on their headline, they can appeal to the content of the article and insist they are not lying. The writers and editors might even have moral qualms about lying outright but be willing to achieve their goals with misleading headlines—that is, misleading without technically lying.
The second aspect of headlining is when a reader is influenced to believe what the misleading headline is intended to imply—that is, they have been tricked into believing an untrue interpretation of the headline. For example, a person seeing the headline “President admits activity was criminal in nature” used by a site hostile to the president might interpret it as “president admits he committed a crime” and rush to Facebook to post about it. In truth, the president might have just agreed when asked if some crime done by a foreign leader was a crime. In this case the person is a victim of deceit—they believe the news source (which can be reliable in terms of the content it provides in the articles) but have been misled by the headline. This is different from believing an outright lie—a misleading headline is not a complete fabrication and it sits atop content that is not entirely untrue.
In such a case, the person is making three mistakes. The first is interpreting the headline in the misleading way without considering other plausible interpretations—which is likely to involve the influence of their own biases. The second is not reading the actual article to see the content. The third is not being critical of the claim and applying the rational methods of claim assessment. The defense against falling for misleading headlines involves avoiding those three errors.
The third aspect of headlining is intentional misuse of misleading headlines. This occurs when the person is aware that the headline is misleading, but they make use of it for their own purposes, often by posting the article on social media with their preferred interpretation of the headline. For example, a person who loathes the president might know that the “President admits activity was criminal in nature” headline is a misleading statement about the president agreeing that a foreign leader committed a crime. But they might post a link to the article while making some claim about the president’s guilt in or association with a criminal activity in the hope that others will be misled.
A person might even go so far as to construct an entire argument or even a YouTube video based on intentionally misinterpreting headlines that are admittedly somewhat subject. Such people might be called out for this by someone one YouTube. People can, of course, also simply lie about the content of an article and use that to make their straw man argument—which would be a fallacy of that name.
A defense against this tactic has three parts. The first is questioning the interpretation and considering other plausible interpretations. The second is to read the actual article to see the content. The third is being critical of the claims made and applying the rational methods of claim assessment.