There’s nothing wrong with New York Times reporter Andrew Kramer’s October 4 report about a new development in the scandal surrounding President Donald Trump’s attempts to coerce Ukraine into carrying out a politically motivated investigation.
But there was something wrong with the headline.
Kramer’s article explained that the Ukrainian government would audit a closed case involving a gas company linked to Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic 2020 presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden. It also, crucially, reiterated that there’s “no evidence of wrongdoing” by the Bidens, and that Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry over the pressure he put on the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens and the withholding of foreign aid as leverage, which are possible abuses of power.
The article’s headline, however, painted a different picture, reading “Ukraine to Review Criminal Case on Owner of Firm Linked to Biden’s Son.” When detached from Trump’s push for a frivolous investigation, this headline, which was later slightly altered, hints that there’s reason to suspect the Bidens of wrongdoing. (This likely isn’t Kramer’s fault; reporters rarely write their own headlines.)
No journalist wants thousands of their words to be reduced to a single sentence, but that’s the current state of media. No amount of good reporting will make up for the damage of a terrible headline. A 2014 American Press Institute study found that 60% of those surveyed said that they hadn’t read past the headline of a single story in the week prior. That means that if pertinent information isn’t actually in the headline, the majority of people won’t know it even exists.
This problem isn’t limited to the Times, either. Several other outlets ran with the story, giving Trump exactly the headline he wanted.
CNN, USA Today, CBS, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and NBC also ran headlines that hinted at impropriety on the Bidens’ part. In each instance, these headlines could have been made more accurate by simply adding phrases like “caving to Trump pressure.”
The most damaging instance of this problem is perhaps a headline by The Associated Press. Because thousands of news outlets run content that the AP pushes out on the wire, its story and similar headlines ended up at Politico, PBS, ABC, The Washington Post, Time, and HuffPost, among many other local, national, and international outlets.
News organizations need to do a bit of soul-searching to rethink their objectives and update their strategy moving forward.
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes spoke too soon when he tweeted that if Trump’s attempts to extort Ukraine into investigating Hunter Biden hadn’t been exposed, we would’ve seen stories with headlines like “BIDEN SON UNDER INVESTIGATION, UKRAINE PROSECUTOR SAYS.” Just hours later, those headlines actually began rolling in.
The most important point in Hayes’ tweet is the accurate appraisal of what successful corruption looks like in 2019, a year in which just four in 10 Republicans believe Trump asked the Ukrainian president to investigate the son of his potential 2020 election opponent -- even though Trump himself has admitted that he did.
Success in the current media landscape is about narratives built around headlines. To rebuild trust in media, it’s time to rethink headlines and news delivery systems as a whole. In the meantime, publishers committed to informing the public need to understand the implications of their decisions around framing the story.