I have commented before many times on the technique of Bias by Headline in newspapers. This is normally used in a news report, where the paper feels obliged to present facts that do not quite fit their unionist bias (there are no print newspapers that have a nationalist bias) but wants to create an impression in the headline that is either contrary to the body of facts, or presents an interpretation of them without offering an argument.
This approach relies on two things – that many readers scan headlines but don’t get to grips with complex reports, and that if they do read the full piece, they have already been conditioned by the headline to favour the editorial interpretation.
(Newspaper editors will reject this, if the argument of bias by headline is presented to them, saying that the only purpose of a headline is to grab the attention of the reader and briefly signal content. Aye, right …)
Unlike television channels, newspapers have a right to take a political stance and put forward a point of view. In an ethical newspaper (after Murdoch, we may ask if there is such a thing) viewpoint and polemic will be confined to editorial and opinion pieces, and will be reflected in the selection of regular columnists, e.g. The Times and Alan Cochrane, and some sort of balance will be maintained by the occasional token inclusion of views and opinions presenting a countervailing position.
Headlines are normally written by someone other than the author of the piece. I make this claim, not on direct experience of news room policies, but on the excuses offered when newspapers are criticised over headlines. I would guess this is almost invariably true of news reports, and sometimes true of opinion pieces. We may therefore speculate that in this world, the body of the piece represents the skills of the journalist and the headline reflects the skills of the huckster and possibly the spinmeister.
Today’s example I’m sad to say, involves Ruth Wishart, a journalist and commentator who has my respect. The sub-header for her piece on the referendum debate sets out precisely what the thrust of her argument is -
“Both sides of the debate will wheel out conjecture and half truths, but it’s up to everyone to vote with conviction, says Ruth Wishart”
But what does the banner headline across the page say in bold type?
Beware of the sales pitch for independence
I don’t believe for one moment that this is the title under which Ruth submitted her piece. If it was, it bears a very strange relationship to her content, epitomised by this quote, where she speaks of what the voter will be subjected to in the referendum campaign -
“Over the next few weeks and months they will be fed all manner of ‘evidence’ from all sides as to the impact of their vote. Some of this will be the kind of statistics that would give damned lies a good name. Some will be little more than slightly informed conjecture, because in truth nobody in a (sic) possession of an infallible crystal ball.”
Leaving aside the fact that crystal balls are not of much use unless they are infallible, this is a fairly accurate statement of what will occur. It points to no particular side of the argument, YES vote or NO vote, as either villain or hero. Ruth, in the early part of her piece, reported on one of Angus Robertson’s roadshows. Since so far there are no unionist roadshows, she was unable to offer that balance.
The headline for her article could equally have read Beware of the sales pitch for the Union, and if such a thing as a print newspaper with a nationalist bias had existed, it might well have.
An objective headline would, of course, have have been Beware of the sales pitches for the referendum vote.
What I would suggest to voters in search of truth is beware of Scotsman headlines. It is ironic that the headline writer managed to betray the very bias that Ruth Wishart was warning against in her plea to voters to examine all sides of the argument. But one must never look to right-wing media for a fine appreciation of irony …