Studies have shown that most Americans don’t read beyond the headlines of news articles, most people who share articles on social media haven’t actually read them, and misleading headlines misinform people even when the body of the article gets the facts right. And that’s a huge problem when major outlets’ headlines are framed around President-elect Donald Trump’s latest false claims about climate change.
During a December 11 appearance on Fox Broadcasting Co.’s Fox News Sunday, Trump declared that “nobody really knows” whether human-induced climate change is happening. As is often the case in TV interviews with climate science deniers, host Chris Wallace didn’t challenge Trump’s claim, which blatantly misrepresents the consensus of the world’s leading scientific institutions that human activities such as burning fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming. But Wallace’s silence was just the first media misstep.
In the hours that followed, major media outlets including The Washington Post, CNN.com, United Press International, and International Business Times produced online headlines about Trump’s remarks that didn’t mention that they were false:
Each of these outlets noted in the body of the articles that the vast majority of climate scientists would dispute Trump’s claim that “nobody really knows” whether man-made climate change is real (the initial version of the Post article apparently did not, but it was updated). Nonetheless, the damage had already been done by the headlines.
When Trump makes comments like these, the news story should be that the the president-elect told a whopper about climate change, not that the science of climate change is suddenly in doubt. And if media outlets want to avoid confusing their readers, their headlines should reflect that reality.