In the Scotsman today:
‘Damning report reveals 38 children made homeless in Scotland each day’
Then, contradicting the headline somewhat, we read:
‘The scale of Scotland’s homelessness crisis has been described as “damning” after figures showed the equivalent of 38 children a day were left without somewhere permanent to live last year.’ Analysis by the charity Shelter Scotland revealed 14,075 children were in households assessed as being homeless in 2017-18 – the equivalent of six or seven pupils for every school. On one day in March, 6,615 children were living in temporary accommodation – the fourth consecutive year in which the figure has risen, the charity said. It described the scale of child homelessness as “shocking” and said not having a permanent place to live can have “drastic” effects on young people.’
I know, children in temporary accommodation is a tragic circumstance but the headline suggests bairns on the streets when actually they are in accommodation.
Headlines matter. For accuracy, it should have been
’38 children in temporary accommodation in Scotland each day.’
How much does this matter and who damned the Scotsman? OK it was me who did the damning, again, but it’s evidence-based damning. Research including that by Ulrich Ecker in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, in 2014, reported in the New Yorker, found that headlines can change how you read and understand the rest of the article:
‘By drawing attention to certain details or facts, a headline can affect what existing knowledge is activated in your head. By its choice of phrasing, a headline can influence your mindset as you read so that you later recall details that coincide with what you were expecting.’
Secondly, when the headline only subtly distorts, as was the case in the Scotsman, it is more damaging:
‘For conscientious readers and editors, Ecker’s findings across the two studies give cause for concern. First, misinformation appears to cause more damage when it’s subtle than when it’s blatant. We see through the latter and correct for it as we go.’
Thirdly, headlines can actually make it harder to remember the content of the full article:
‘The headline, it turns out, had done more than simply reframe the article. In the case of the factual articles, a misleading headline hurt a reader’s ability to recall the article’s details.’
So, the Scotsman headline might leave you with the unpleasant image of 38 bairns on the street with nowhere to go.
Finally, the lack of context, in the article as a whole, can leave the reader thinking things are worse than they are. Homelessness is a smaller problem in Scotland than in the non-Scottish parts of the UK. See these for more detail:
SNP Government to fund frontline efforts to help hardcore of street homeless while Ruth Davidson goes from baking show to celebrity list membership games and our media rats sniff the sewer air for SNP-bad aroma