This headline might be all you read

The importance of headlines in framing the narrative of an event is critical. The only reason, for instance, that some people still believe that Israel was involved in a “massacre” at the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank in April 2002 is because the word appeared in a front-page Guardian headline.

One of the curiosities of professional journalism is that although achieving the right tone in headlines is essential, the headings are rarely written by the writer concerned. Most headlines (including the one on this column) are written by production staff and — in the case of high priority items — by the section editor or the publication editor. This is especially true of front-page splashes and the pieces on the main opinion pages.

There have been classic cases of misleading headings in the past few days relating to the curious clash in Gaza between Hamas and the Gaza Islamist leader Abdel-Latif Moussa. Anyone consulting the BBC website for their news (as many people will while on holiday) on August 15 will have seen the following: “Gaza Islamist leader dies in raid.” The immediate reaction of the reader, unless they dived into the actual text, would be to assume that Israel was, as it has been in the past, engaged in targeted assassinations against Palestinian extremists.

This was not the case. As the BBC story made clear — but not until its third paragraph — the attack was led not by Israel but Hamas, which launched a “bloody crackdown” on the group Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of the Commanders of God). There is a strong contrast between this headline, where the parties are not identified, and another a few days earlier in the Guardian: “Israeli soldiers killed unarmed civilians carrying white flags in Gaza, says report.” The IDF is clearly identified as the perpetrator, leaving no doubt in the reader’s mind.

As it happens, in the case of the Jund Ansar Allah “killings” (only a massacre when Israel is the perpetrator), the Guardian was among the few UK national titles to come close to describing events accurately. Its headline was: “Radical Muslim cleric among 22 dead in fierce Gaza mosque clashes”; there was even a sub-head providing a context noting the fighting had been “sparked by sermon at Friday prayers”. Even so, the fact that it was an internecine killing (not involving Israel) was not made explicit.

The Independent, not normally noted for its soft treatment of Israel, was explicit in its headline: “Twenty-two dead as Hamas and radical Islamists clash in Gaza.” Most other UK titles failed to identify who was involved and why the clash occurred. The Telegraph, once the most Israel friendly title, stated: “Gaza Islamist leader Abdel-Latif Moussa killed in Rafah shootout that kills 22;” in the Times, the headline was: “Radical Islamist reported killed in Gaza.” Both left the impression that Israel could have been behind the deaths.

Even in Israel it was not entirely clear. Ha’aretz noted: “Al-Qaida associate among 23 killed in Gaza clashes”, without saying between whom. But its analysis clarified with: “Hamas crushes challenge to its rule in Gaza.”

Most newspapers carry up to 100,000 words a day, the equivalent of a book of 200 or so pages. No one expects every reader to plough through every word or through every story on a website. Often we never get beyond the headline. It is what draws people into a story, or sums up what it is about. Because of the battering Israel’s reputation has taken in the media over Gaza, most readers will jump to the conclusion that the Jewish state is the perpetrator unless otherwise alerted. In this, most of Britain’s media outlets singularly failed.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

    Last updated: 4:44pm, August 20 2009