Misleading headlines (photo of google news by mike holden)

Headlines are important, especially in the Internet age

Not everyone clicks on an online news story, meaning the headline might be all they read—and a bad one can mislead

Pictured above are August 20, 2013 online headlines from various news outlets about the coroner’s report for journalist Michael Hastings, who was killed in a car accident in June.

The headlines on that date included ones like: “Autopsy finds drugs in journalist who died in Los Angeles crash” and “Coroner, family link Michael Hastings to drug use at time of death.”

I read those and thought, “Oh, Hastings was on drugs at the time of the crash?” And then I clicked through to some of the articles, which told a bit of a different story.

If you read the Reuters article that goes along with the headline “Autopsy finds drugs in journalist who died in Los Angeles crash,” it says: “The drugs in Michael Hastings’ system were of an amount unlikely to have contributed to the crash in which the Mercedes-Benz he was driving struck a tree and burst into flames, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office report.”

Or, if you open the LA Times article that goes with the “Coroner, family link Michael Hastings to drug use at time of death” headline, you’ll find: “Coroner’s officials said Hastings had traces of amphetamine in his system, consistent with possible intake of methamphetamine many hours before death, as well as marijuana. Neither were considered a factor in the crash, according to toxicology reports.”

In other words, the coroner is saying the drugs in Hastings’ system were likely not a factor in the accident that killed him. The headlines don’t really give that impression though. They make it very easy for people to assume drugs played a role.

Look at the headline from The Smoking Gun: “Autopsy Shows Journalist Michael Hastings Had Meth, Pot In System At Time Of Fiery Auto Crash.” That’s not untrue, but read only that and you might get the impression that meth and pot were a factor in the crash.

Particularly in a time when people quickly scan online headlines, sometimes while looking for other information or a different story, it’s important that headlines be as accurate as possible. A headline like “Traces of drugs likely non-factor in journalist Hastings’ deadly crash,” might have told the story better in this situation.

Some burden is on the reader to click through to a story, rather than assume a headline has enough key details (and some headlines are no doubt written certain ways to generate clicks). But too often I have clicked and found a different story than the one the headline told.

Headline writers hold some power, especially in the Internet age, and they need to be sure what they write fits the details of the story as best as possible. In the case of these Michael Hastings articles, their word choices paint a picture that misleads.


Mike Holden is a PR and marketing professional. You can follow him on Twitter at mikeholden and read more of his posts here on Medium.