STUDY: Readers Remember Misleading Headlines

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Here at Mediabistro, we often get requests from reps to change or alter our headlines. We usually respond with annoyance, but a study featured in Fast Company yesterday explains why such demands can be very important: readers will remember a misleading headline even when they read the full article for a better understanding of the story.

The paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, makes a pretty basic point: headlines can be “misleading” without being incorrect — and the difference between the two is often lost on readers through no real fault of their own.

The example cited by FC concerns identical reports about the safety of genetically modified foods, one of which ran under the headline “GM Foods Are Safe” and another under “GM Foods May Pose Long-Term Health Risks.” They both accurately reflected the opinions of different experts quoted within — but consumers who read the latter indicated a greater willingness to pay more for non-GM foods.

The point is that, once an impression has been made, it’s hard to erase.

While the research in question concerned reporting on science, here’s an example from our blog last week: we ran stories about the new anti-domestic violence PSA starring NFL players and used the word “NFL” in the headline, implying that the organization “owned” the campaign in some way.

That wasn’t exactly accurate, though. While the league did support the campaign and send members of its communications team to discuss it, the NFL was not involved in the creation or pitching of the work. So, while we were initially annoyed by the follow-up request, we get it: writers and editors can shape public perceptions with headlines before they even begin writing a piece.

That’s not to say that anyone in media will welcome a request to change something they’ve already published. The point, for PR, is to make sure that the message is as clear as it can possibly be the first time.