How media headlines shape the emotional response

TL;DR Summary

  • Media editors make choices in the words they use in media headlines.
  • These words shape your perspective and understanding of the story.
  • Remember that propaganda is messaging designed to persuade a group to adopt someone else’s agenda.
  • Then consider the following headlines captured from Google News and how some assert a conclusion that is not yet evident at the time these headlines were posted:


  • USA Today: Obama orders review of foreign attempts to hack US election
  • NY Times: Obama Orders Intelligence Report on Russian Election  Hacking

“Cyber attacks” occurred, as illustrated by documents made public by DC Leaks, Guccifer 2 and Wikileaks. The Reuters headline makes an accurate statement. Presumably the review is intended to examine these information security break ins. But this review could be targeting something different and unrelated to those document leaks.

  • Reuters: “Cyber attacks” occurred and this headline is accurate.
  • Washington Post: The Washington Post headline concludes that Russia hacked the presidential campaign even though evidence has not been made public and is why a review has been requested. This headline might be true in the future, of course.
  • Daily Caller: “Review of Russian Involvement” draws no conclusion – a review could find no or little involvement.
  • Christian Science Monitor: References “Russian hacking concerns” which is also an accurate description. For now, these are accusations, not conclusions.
  • USA Today: Accurate headline.
  • NY Times: Runs with a variation of the inflammatory, pejorative Washington Post headline[1].

Unlike the other headlines, the Washington Post (and NY Times) use pejorative language – rather than neutral language – to influence the readers’ interpretation of their story. In effect, their headline becomes propaganda, albeit subtle. Particularly since President Obama’s directive is to investigate the hacking and determine what happened and who may have been involved, including foreign actors.

Asserting a conclusion – “Russian hacking” – as the Washington Post has done could be lazy journalism or propaganda messaging. Their headline is akin to a Court that presents the verdict and then hears the evidence!

Their headline will be distributed on social media. Social media enthusiasts will then Like and Share and pass this pejorative headline on to more people. In this way, social media becomes a propaganda message amplifier.

Many of us only read one or a small number of news sources and may not recognize when one headline does not comport with the rest. Because of this, it is easy to be fooled by headlines. As these headlines are shared, they become the dominate “politically correct meme” which must not be disagreed with. Thus, poor reporting turns into “fact”. 

Now that you are aware of pejorative techniques in news reporting – rather than neutral – you may find it easier to recognize this method of persuasion. This method is also common with social media “propaganda posters”. Remember, the key is to hook you emotionally, to engage your quick acting System 1 thinking – and to discourage detailed System 2 analysis and interpretation.

Update: Two days later, the Washington Post published a related story with the newly worded headline “suspected Russian election interference” which is more accurate, although President Obama referred only to “foreign actors” in his original statement.

Update: Subsequent reporting attributed to “anonymous” sources, with unverified information, by agencies with a lengthy history of telling outright lies, says the CIA “confirms” that Russia hacked the DNC and the RNC. Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept explains the problem with this line of reasoning, better than I can.

Update: Rolling Stone magazine cautions that the set of allegations that Russia hacked the election are poorly sourced to anonymous claims, lacking evidence and seem to have been accepted by a surprisingly credulous press. Rolling Stone notes numerous aspects of the allegations do not make sense.


[1] The NY Times cites “high confidence” of “American intelligence agencies”. The same agencies also had high confidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. See Glenn Greenwald’s comments, above.