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Here’s How News Titles Purposedly Mislead You & How to See Through Them

14 November 2018

You can read this article on Medium too.

Titles are everything.

Whether it is for a movie, a novel, a Medium article… Picking a title is like money time for writers, and we can’t all be Michael Jordans. You can give everything you have to write the best article, if the title is bad nobody will click on it and read it… And if it’s good then they’ll click even if the content is not great.

If a title is catchy, it brings money. Content doesn’t matter. This is a problem for any type of creation, but I think you will agree that it’s worse when it concerns the news. Like those supposed to be serious and objective… Right?

Now what if I told you that these titles can tell you everything about an article and even more without even reading it? And what if I told you that you knew it deep down, but didn’t notice it? AND what if I told that titles can change the way you understand a story? AND WHAT IF I TOLD YOU TH- okay, no… Let’s stop here.

They can influence you, yes. But you can also learn some stuff in return. So here’s how to hack the brain of any biased newswriter.

Oh SNAP ! I said it ! I can read journalists’ minds through their titles. I see their dirty secrets. I even see society’s dirty secrets, actually. But let’s keep that for the end of the article.

So you guys know about the passive voice right? I mean… You’re supposed to! Now scholars want to call it “Be + V-en” structure, which is basically the same but said in a very confusing way. Here’s an example:

  • Active voice: The dog chases the cat.
  • Passive voice: The cat is chased by the dog.

Sounds very primary-schoolish I know, but please bear with me for a second. What’s in italics in these examples is the subject of each sentence. As you can see, in the active voice the cat is only an object but it becomes subject in the passive voice… Which doesn’t change much, at first sight. But when you think about it you’ll realize that this variation induces a shift of focus. The dog, which was chasing the cat is now put in the background, while the cat becomes the main interest.

So who’s really doing what?

The subject of the passive voice is not doing much here. I mean he’s probably freaking out and trying to escape the dog, but really, the one originating the action is the dog. No need to escape if nobody’s after you, right? Here comes the concepts of patient and agent. The agent is the element in the sentence that actually DOES something, the other one being a receiver, experiencer… Or victim, in that case.

In an active sentence agent and subject are the same but in the passive voice the agent is left aside, demoted as an object, while our poor victim is promoted as a subject.

Yeah, so what? Well here’s where it gets interesting. In the passive voice it is possible for the person writing or speaking to completely remove the object. That doesn’t make the sentence grammatically incorrect. Could be anecdotal but it actually has a big consequence. If I say:

  • The cat is being chased.

You’ll probably wonder if it’s by a dog, another cat, or a rabbit on cocaïne… Which could be f*cking amazing to see. It creates a gap between the information the utterer — the guy writing/saying the sentence — has and the one the reader/interlocutor receives. But let’s take another example now. I read a kind of scary book recently in which the narrator looked through the window and saw someone painting in the opposite building. They gave us a detailed description of the painter…

  • “… But the painting was hidden”

This passive sentence — passive voice is a writer’s favorite tool to create suspense by the way— left me wondering about many things. Who’s the agent here? Who or what hid the painting? Do they simply mean that since light travels in straight lines they could only see the back of the canvas? Or did someone actually hide it on purpose? Is it just hidden from the narrator’s sight? Does the painter know he’s being watched? … Yeah, I kinda exaggerated but you get the idea: Passive voice leaves it up to us to fill in the blanks.

If you’re a native English speaker you probably forgot about this whole explanation but still knew it in some way. Your practice of the language helps you “feel” it naturally. Whether you’re reading a book, watching TV, or reading the news. I’d compare it to a subliminal message. You get it without knowing it.

Dangerous stuff…

That can be very risky when it concerns news, information… Stuff supposed to be unbiased and help you make your own opinion of a situation… Speaking of biased news: Fox News Titles. I know they regularly say they’re as objective as any news channel and I don’t want to start a debate about them specifically… They’re just a very good example here.

  • Kentucky cop killer shot dead by authorities in Tennessee.
  • Stephon Clark was shot 8 times, 7 from behind

Both of these Fox News titles are in the passive voice. In the first one, the story is that a murderer was killed by the police in Tennessee and the title is fairly honest. It states the facts. All of them. We can see the agent -the authorities- and the patient -the cop killer.

In the second one though, things are different. You may remember Stephon Clark, a 22 year-old man who was shot in the back by the police while bearing no weapon, starting a huge outcry across the USA. Let’s add that Fox News famously defended the police in many similar cases, especially involving black people. Now look at the title. The victim is present, but the murderers — the authorities — have disappeared.

Do they mean to do that?

It is hard to say if such choices are made on purpose or not, but I would argue that it could be a form of expression of the author’s subconscious. Like they probably don’t want to be biased but they are deep inside. Because of racism, or because they don’t accept that the authorities can make a mistake. In both of these cases, a shift of guilt inherently occurs, since the reader does not instantly blame the agent with the second example as he would with the first one.

So Fox News influences their readers with that sort of things. Sucks. But the interesting thing is that once you know that, you open a door into the authors’ minds. And even into society’s mind. Cause no, it’s not all Fox News’ fault. This type of situation can be found in many cases. I’ll focus on two big ones in order to show you why this is so common.

First: Science. Unless you’re the type of person that questions Science to the point of saying that Earth is flat, you’ll probably agree with me when I say that Science is helpful. Without it you wouldn’t be reading this. I wouldn’t be writing it. And you’d have never seen any meme or cat video in your life. Take a moment and imagine how frightening a life like this would be. Scary as hell, I know.

But what Science is famous for is mainly the process it uses to bring us knowledge: the scientific method. The keystone of this technique is experiments. I don’t know if you’ve ever read one of these scientific reports but they’re filled with passive voice structures: first because they love to say things while pretending they haven’t said it.

  • “Our theory is thus confirmed.”

Which, after years of studies, could translate into:

  • “I WAS RIGHT, B*TCH” *Rick Sanchez’ voice*

But in other cases, it appears to be a bit different. Especially when they tell you about the details of their experiments.

  • “The rabbit is skinned”
  • “A scientist skins the rabbit”

Ewww I know

The first example is okay but that second one ! DAMN !… And keep in mind that this is a “soft” example. Imagine what experiments have been performed to make sure you know where your appendix is. In this case, the attribution of guilt is different. We can’t really assume that scientists are trying to hide their actions but more like trying to make them sound okay. Plus, is there really any guilt to have when your job is literally to discover stuff, to create knowledge, to make humanity better?

Now let’s focus on a situation where nobody would/should ever question the guilt of the agent: Violence and sexual assault.

Back to news titles. Frazer and Miller’s study showed in 2009 that in articles about male domestic violence against women, the passive voice is used more often than the active voice. A first hypothesis would be that the authors uncounsciously hide a violence that’s too horrible to be accepted by any human being… But further studies have proven that on the other side, when the agent is a woman and the victim a man, the active voice is more commonly used, which emphasizes the woman’s guilt.

In the same depressing way, articles about sexual assault present similar results, and a study led by Beazley, Henley and Miller even shows that when such articles use the passive voice instead of the active voice many readers tend to attribute the guilt to the subject, AKA the patient… AKA the victim.

Entering society’s mind.

These facts highlight two things. First, there is a difference between the way we see sexual assaults against men and those against women. It is hard to admit but we seem to have normalized the idea that rapists are men and victims women, so much that when it is not the case, newswriter and everybody talking about the story will feel the need to precise the offender’s gender.

It also proves that our desire to avoid shocking people conflicts with our values, whether it’s in a science report or news. I don’t think any journalist is inhumane enough to use the passive voice in order to “hide” the criminal on purpose. For them, it is just the normal way to say it… And for us too. We naturally leave aside the agent in order to soften the violence of the facts, to the detriment of accuracy… And of respect for the victims. We prevent ourselves from seeing things that are not easy to accept but it has heavy consequences on the way people understand what really happened. It is fair to assume that avoiding the problem is slowing down our evolution as a society on such an important matter.

This is what you can learn by analyzing only one part of speech. In fact, I’ve really tried to make it as short as possible… But there’s a lot more to talk about. Studying linguistics can really change your perspective of the world, culture, and society. Knowing about stuff like the ability of the passive voice to create a gap of information between the utterer and his interlocutor, as well as the consequences it can have is very hepful in understanding what a novelist, newswriter, or tv host is trying to make you believe…

I hope that will help you too !

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