Social media influence: Peril in the headlines

Social media influence: Peril in the headlines

The greatly-derided craft of writing newspaper headlines is, like all other skills, constrained by the iron rules of science: a fixed line of space cannot accommodate an infinite number of legible characters in a given size and font.

A headline can suggest, deliberately or otherwise, opinion, bias and values. A classic example, thought to be apocryphal yet attributed to the London Times in possibly the 1930s is ‘Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off’.

Way back then, newspapers did not have to worry about readers angered by perceived bias and venting their fury via anti-social media.

They do now, as The New York Times, the esteemed mouthpiece of the east coast liberal establishment, has found this week. Its report of President Donald Trump’s entirely unconvincing tele-prompted statement on the mass murders in Texas and Ohio was headlined ‘Trump Urges Unity vs Racism’.

In response to a torrent of tweets by readers who thought this headline in a sort of round-about way condoned or overlooked Mr Trump’s anti-immigrant rants and his resistance to gun-ownership law reforms, the headline was changed for the paper’s next edition. The president was: “Assailing hate but not guns”.

This might not affect the way in which Mr Trump sees the paper, but whatever he has to say about it won’t matter, since his supporters tend on the whole not to be New York Times readers and, anyway, he doesn’t seem to have a settled view about the publication he has praised as a “great, great American jewel” and rubbished as “sick”, “nasty” and “not nice”.

However, the implications of instant censorship or rewriting by twitter mobs, be they of the left or right, for a freethinking and independent press and its readers are alarming.

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