Don’t get your news from headlines, read stories too

By Megan Rule | Opinion Editor

In this day and age, it’s hard to avoid the flashy headlines that news organizations put out. Headlines dart across the bottom of our television screens, fill our Twitter feeds, cover the front pages of newspapers and run across the computer screens at work and on social media. Radio DJ’s read major headlines in between songs and dinner conversations focus on what the bold print was in any publication.

Notice, however, how no one ever talks about a quote buried seven paragraphs into a story. Notice how no tweets encompass a whole story. Notice how radio DJ’s don’t read the entire story. Notice how our society likes to jump to conclusions, feeling oh-so educated because they read the front page of the Wall Street Journal or the Houston Chronicle. Notice how every headline has a whole story that follows beneath it, because the story is where the meat is.

Stories are written because they are meant to be read. Not even the greatest headline in the world can give a total, fully painted picture of what’s inside the package. But in the age of hurried phone calls and quick glances, no one seems to have the time to read a whole story. No one seems to have the time to find that great quote buried inside or enlighten their understanding of the world by reading things that seem interesting. We are all guilty of one of the greatest sins of education –– reading a headline, believing we know what it entails, then moving on with our lives, spreading that fake story that we got in six or seven words that is really so much more.

One of the greatest consequences of this poor act is the false story that then gets spread after just reading the headline. I can’t even begin to summarize the amount of times I’ve heard my parents or peers say, “But if they just read the whole story they’d see that that’s not true.” The story is where the details are –– the important facts that actually educate you rather than a bold font at the top of the page. Headlines are like the appetizer, but stories are the whole meal.

In 2014, NPR pulled a prank on its readers by sharing an article with instructions just to show that people don’t actually read beyond the headline. The article, titled, “Why doesn’t America read anymore?” was shared with instructions inside saying not to comment. However, many “readers” commented angrily saying that they do read. Well, clearly not. A 2014 article from The Washington Post proved this theory, reporting that about six in 10 people read the headline and nothing else.

“The lesson for politicians and those who cover them? The more complex an issue, the less likely it is to break through with a public that really consumes news via headlines and not much else,” The Washington Post article said.

Recently, I’ve noticed with many opinion columns that the Lariat has published this year, feedback has come to me from people who clearly just read the headline and then express anger and extreme disagreements. One of the most beautiful things about the opinion page is that everything is purely the words of the writer, what they believe and their thoughts beyond the standard news stories or multimedia they crank out day-to-day. With that comes the natural tendency for debate, which is even more beautiful. So many people around the world don’t have the freedom to express their true opinions or engage in a civil discussion of disagreement.

However, the most frustrating part for me as an editor is to sit and read the responses from readers who clearly just saw the tweet or just saw the headline in their email subscription and then voiced anger and cruel feedback about something that A) everyone has a right to share and B) is a point that is actually negated or clarified in the story.

Reader engagement is fantastic, comments are fantastic and discussion of news and worldly events and stories are fantastic. However, they only work properly when the story is actually clicked on, opened and read. Why doesn’t America read anymore? America believes it is already so smart and the headline says it all. Why does America confidently comment after only reading a headline? America believes the headline is the story. But if America clicks and delves further in, beyond the headline, America will surprise itself with how much more information exists beyond the catch-phrase title or tweet.