News article titles are not trivial

Information is both meaningful and factual, or else it risks becoming something else: misinformation. Information, however short in specific contexts such as email subjects, news article titles, and Twitter posts, lays down a path for people to expand their knowledge in a targeted direction.

My overarching issue here is concerning the ethical use of information in these condensed forms. My arguments below attempt to demonstrate the impact of news article titles on three groups of people.

  1. None: People in this group have no background in any given story.
  2. Partial: People in this group know bits and pieces to a large story made up of either historical or current events.
  3. Exhaustive: people in this group have a highly extensive and diverse knowledge about any given story.

Why is it important to have high quality information in news article titles, or in any format where someone is presenting the theme of information content? I believe that high quality information should be as specific as possible, because details always matter when it comes to complexity. So, I’ll look at a specific example in this post.

“Top appeals court to hear why NSA metadata spying should stay or go”

An authoritative information source–like a news agency–has a responsibility to address all three groups of people. Like the author of the above article, I’m a member of the third group. The mass surveillance scandal has a great deal to do with the NSA, but it is not the whole story, and metadata collection is an even smaller part of the higher-level story regardless of the intelligence community’s tactics.

Narrowing in on Verizon, it is the only story hung out to dry by President Obama that is now being looked at by a court. The information “NSA metadata spying” is incredibly vague when juxtaposed between the larger story and the narrowly scoped story that’s titled above. Such ambiguity can negatively impact all three groups of people. Most legitimately, to the ‘none’ and ‘partial’ groups of people, it may lead those information consumers to believe that the entirety of the NSA’s mass surveillance practices are being looked at by an American appeals court, which would be false. Leading readers in this direction is unethical, because it means an information consumer may have a harder time understanding the content, because the initial indicators were presumed incorrectly. An authoritative information producer should know better and avoid this situation by being as specific as possible.

The ‘partial’ group of people have it the worst. Having only bits and pieces, they are the hardest to bring to a state of ideally-complete knowledge because their existing knowledge may be weighted by emotion instead of facts. The goal for a news agency, after all, is to help its readers attain as close to 100% information as possible based on what’s available, and in particular make available new information (factual, meaningful content) after investigating.

You never know what the ‘partial’ group knows and doesn’t know. A news article title should mimic its respective article’s content with specificity. Creating many and diverse logical links to the content via the introduction (the title) will allow the reader to realize more quickly what the scope of the information should be.

The ‘none’ group takes the most work, so it is easy to see why news producers fail to provide easy access to the larger picture. But as soon as an editor creates a vague, likely attention-grabbing headline, the information consumer has even more work to do.

The ‘exhaustive’ group should know better. When I came about the above mentioned title, I didn’t even bother to read the article because of the seemingly intentional ambiguity in the title. I know from extensive research experience what to probabilisticlly expect. I know that digital media organizations want clicks for ad money, so I go to sources that value respect over ad money. My example is extremely subjective and relative to many things– but the bottom line is that the people who know about the story beforehand, because they’ve already been exposed to said information, are not going to spend a lot of time reading something that’s redundant or annoying. Pre-existing knowledge is always going to alter the outcome of any information producer-consumer exchange, and information producers need to come up with more respectable ways of attracting consumers.