Friday 21 November 2014

Sensationalism unmasked: how to design newsworthy headlines

Have digital media made news headlines more sensational?

Once upon a time, when the press was the queen of the media, professional standards demanded news reports to be an accurate, objective and precise accounts of events. Since then, TV and digital media have stepped in, and the objectives of the media have been transformed. The competition for information has been replaced by the competition for attention. The larger audience base you have, the better, and the best way to gain an audience is to create a sensation –a report about an unusual, extraordinary incident – or to reveal a secret.

However the vast majority of news stories have little to do with our personal lives, so why should we spend time reading about a scandalous imprisonment of yet another maniac?   Katarzyna Molek-Kozakowska has analysed the special linguistic techniques used to grab the readers` attention, making a headline seem interesting and relevant and revealing some sort of a mystery.

Some topics are inherently more sensational than others, no doubt. Juicy gossip about Angelina Jolie`s special pyjamas is likely to attract a greater audience than a sombre report on bitter living conditions in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the main focus of Molek-Kozakowska`s research was on the linguistic packaging of news: not on what we report, but on how we report it in order to hook some extra readers. She picked a total of 120 headlines, subheadlines and lead-ins from the most read Daily Mail articles, and compiled a survey asking participants which of the headlines seemed the most sensational and what made them so. Later, the sensationalizing strategies were discussed in focus groups in more detail.

The research identified several features of sensationalism, pertaining solely to language use, not to the topic. Technique number one hinges on the narrative structure. Fairly sensational headlines are built in a peculiar way. The climax – the part of the story with the greatest suspense – goes first, followed by the complication – a technical term for bits of narrative that say what happened. The resolution, or the ‘how it all ended’ bit concludes the list. Beginning with the climax arouses  the reader’s curiosity and makes them want to find out more about this story. For example:

(1) [Humbling of MISTER Goodwin]: Four years [after the biggest banking disaster in    British history], [the man who caused it sees his knighthood shredded] (1 Feb. 2012)
[climax] [complication] [resolution]

The next way to make an attention grabbing headline is to use emotive and evaluative vocabulary, as well as strategies such as puns or idioms adapted from names of films. Consider the following:

(2) Elf and safety threat to blood donors: Nurses banned from tapping skin to raise veins (13 Jan. 2012)

(3) ‘Schettino’s a braggart, a show-off and drove the Costa Concordia like a Ferrari’, claims his former captain as ship slips even further into the sea (18 Jan. 2012)

The words in italics in (3) evoke mostly negative connotations – well, that`s because in the media negative items usually have a greater news value than positive. Hence the extensive use of negative emotive vocabulary.

In short, if you happen to be a budding journalist, it`s worth skimming through Molek-Kozakowska`s paper before writing your news item – maybe that will help you to turn a mundane report into a sensation!
Molek-Kozakowska, Katarzyna (2013) Towards a pragma-linguistic framework for the study of sensationalism in news headlines. Discourse & Communication 7(2) 173 –197.
doi. 10.1177/1750481312471668

This summary was written by Marina Myntsykovska

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