Headlines Should Help, Not Harm

By Connie Perkins

According to Dr. Merlin R. Mann (n.d.), associate professor of journalism at Abilene Christian University, there are four imperatives to writing headlines: They must be correct, they must connect to ordinary readers, they must attract attention, and they must set a tone for the article.

But if journalism is to play a role in ensuring a healthy democracy, journalists must add a fifth imperative, one borrowed from the world of medicine. A headline must help, not harm.

Headlines are important because they are a reader’s first stop on the journey to gain information. They often are the deciding factor that convinces one to continue reading an article or to just “swipe left” to another site on the internet. According to the Media Insight Project (2018), part of the American Press Institute, “…4 in 10 Americans say they scan headlines at least several times a day, and another 3 in 10 say they read the headlines once a day” (para. 7).

Because of ever-evolving busy lifestyles, Americans need instant access to information out of necessity. Today’s readers are bombarded with information-wielding headlines from all angles: apps programmed automatically to scroll across cell phones or tablets at routine intervals, email blogs with preprogrammed subscription deliveries, electronic and print journals or newspapers, streaming services, satellite radio and more.

Given this constant access to information, it is harder to be uninformed than misinformed. With the additional time needed to filter out information sources, the stakes of headline writing are higher than ever. The pressure is on for writers to craft headlines that are compelling enough to be chosen from the infinite information pool and that also attract more deep divers swimming beyond the headlines. Mann (n.d.) goes on to express that good headlines cannot be rushed, and journalists should take “…a healthy, skeptical approach” (para. 3). If Mann’s advice is followed, the story may be chosen by readers, and the ultimate goal will be met. However, simply gaining readers isn’t enough to promote a healthy democracy.

Thus the need to create the aforementioned fifth imperative: a headline must help, not harm. A common practice to becoming a licensed health care professional is taking an oath to do no harm. This is often done at a ceremony in front of family and friends with the hopes that saying it aloud will be remembered by the new providers if the power of licensure becomes too heavy to bear. When this responsibility is forgotten or dismissed, the public should be aware, and journalists should report what happened as a result. This is where the media and the health care profession collide.

Making the public aware when human life is threatened is important and should continue. Although it is disheartening to read, even fellow mid-level providers can learn from headlines such as “Nurse practitioner charged with issuing fake prescriptions,” which appeared in the Buffalo News. This headline, disappointing as the story itself may be, serves its purpose, meeting Mann’s (n.d.) four imperatives. In many instances, it also meets the proposed fifth imperative because it serves as a reminder of the earned power a medical license exerts and what can happen when that power is disregarded.

However, what must stop is throwing an entire profession into a headline for an incident that has nothing to do with the profession at large. The real problem lies in the headlines such as “Nurse charged in beating death of impaired woman” from USA Today, which focuses on the accused person being a nurse rather than a human who may or may not have murdered someone while outside of work. Or “Voodoo-Using U.K. nurse sentenced for trafficking Nigerian women” from NPR.

What do any of these have to do with the nursing profession? Nothing, essentially. So why were they even included in the headlines? Perhaps the writers were just using the occupational title as a quick way to identify the people featured in the stories — or (more disheartening) to employ fear to get reader attention.

Innocent or malicious? Either way, such headlines harm the entire nursing profession because titles are used inappropriately. If such harsh headlines do not end up luring readers as perhaps intended, they still taint the entire profession. Is that worth the gamble? Does that truly help the greater good or support a healthy democracy? Hardly.

For 18 years in a row, nurses have topped Gallup polls as the most honest and ethical profession by survey-takers. Since nurses make up the largest part of the health care profession and are encountered most often by patients, they commonly are referred to as the face of health care. Since all people have the potential to become patients at some point in their life due to chronic illness and/or accident, any undue negative impressions of nurses, who they will eventually encounter, should be avoided. When readers view stories about nurses who make mistakes outside of work, the entire profession takes the brunt of the disappointment, as do the patients. There is no lesson to be learned; no help, just harm.

The damage does not stop with nurses. Nurses are not the only profession with an easy-to-use title or a place in the public’s eye. Police officers, who ranked sixth of 22 on the same Gallup poll, appear in the media routinely (“Honesty/ethics in professions”, 2020). Many times the stories are about events they are involved in while on the job and have headlines such as “A black college student was handcuffed facedown in the snow and threatened with a gun to his head by law enforcement who had the wrong guy, lawsuit says” from CNN. Involving the occupational title is an important piece of that story because the incident occurred on the job and ultimately represents a misuse of the power of the law enforcement profession. Although sad and painful to read, stories such as this should not be kept from the public or the law enforcement community. They serve to inform. Being informative is something that journalists should strive for, even when the story is potentially damaging to a profession.

However, a headline such the Washington Post’s “A serial rapist cop’s ‘mistake’: Assaulting the grandmother who finally reported him” has more grounds for harm than help. Using the term “rapist cop” creates a deep wound to the profession that may never heal. Again, harmful not helpful.  

Maybe the group to be found most often in headlines are members of Congress, with headlines such as “Lawmakers kick the can down the road on discussing the most contentious issues of privacy legislation” by CNBC or “Obstruction of Congress impeachment article is absolutely frivolous” by Fox News. Pairing words in headlines that imply an entire occupation is one thing or another is wrong and could not be further away from the entire premise of serving the public.

It is no coincidence that members of Congress were second to last, only to car salesmen, in the Gallup poll with only 12% of poll takers rating them as an honest or ethical profession (“Honesty/ethics in professions”, 2020). Although many articles are important to share with the public because they help create educated and informed voters, journalists should also consider the bigger picture attached to each and every headline they put out into the world.

It seems that more people rely on headlines as their only way to obtain information, so journalists need to consider what message they are delivering to readers through their headlines. Are they creating mistrust in an entire profession when the story being reported is meant to provide details on an isolated incident that occurred regardless of occupational title? Profession mistrust very well could be the outcome of a headline regardless of its original intent.

In a world where “fake news” is a household phrase and people are always plugged-in, journalists must work toward the greater good of shaping headlines that must help, not harm. Journalists need to devote time to ensuring their headlines best represent the information to be gained and exclude the profession unless truly necessary. Just like nurses have power through licensure, law enforcement officers have power through position, and members of Congress have power through law-making ability, journalists too have a great level of power through their influence of the public, and its starts with headlines.

Writers have more power than many understand. Without writers, knowledge would not be disseminated. But what is more important than disseminating information is ensuring that this power is respected and honored. Power should not be abused by any profession. When it is abused, people suffer. When journalists misuse their power and publish harmful, misleading headlines, people become highly susceptible to misinformation syndrome. The worst part of this syndrome: It is extremely contagious, and it cannot be stopped by simply washing your hands of it.

However, there is an opportunity for journalists to be part of the cure by stringently evaluating their headlines before distributing them. Writers must recognize that, from one isolated incident, entire professions can be misjudged, and they must do their part to combat, not contribute, to that problem. In joining this fight, the journalism profession may also stand to improve its Gallup poll honesty and ethics ranking, which showed a decrease: ninth of 22 in 2018 and eleventh of 22 in 2019 (Brenan, 2018; “Honesty/ethics in professions”, 2020).

And maybe, just maybe, the world would gain a healthier democracy if journalists also took an oath to help, not harm.

Connie J. Perkins, Ph.D., RN, CNE, is the founding director of the RN to B.S. in Nursing Program in the School of Health Professions at St. Bonaventure University. She is a native of Shinglehouse, Pennsylvania. Her husband also is a registered nurse. They are the parents of a daughter named Rubianne.



Brenan, M. (2018, December 20). Nurses again outpace other professions for honesty, ethics. Gallup, Inc. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/245597/nurses-again-outpace-professions-honesty-ethics.aspx.

Fairbanks, P. (2020, January 3). Nurse practitioner charged with issuing fake prescriptions. The Buffalo News. https://buffalonews.com/2020/01/03/nurse-practitioner-charged-with-issuing-fake-prescriptions/.

Feiner, L. (2020, February 9). Lawmakers kick the can down the road on discussing the most contentious issues of privacy legislation. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/08/lawmakers-postpone-discussing-contentious-privacy-legislation-issues.html

Gallup, Inc. Honesty/ethics in professions. (2020). Retrieved February 17, 2020. from https://news.gallup.com/poll/1654/honesty-ethics-professions.aspx

Kaplan, S. (2015, December 11). A serial rapist cop’s ‘mistake’: Assaulting the grandmother who finally reported him. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com

Kennedy, M. (2018, July 5). Voodoo-using U.K. nurse sentenced for trafficking Nigerian women. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2018/07/05/626088604/voodoo-using-u-k-nurse-sentenced-for-trafficking-nigerian-women

Lardieri, A. (2020, January 6). Americans rate nurses as most honest, poll finds. U.S. News. https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2020-01-06/poll-americans-rate-nurses-as-most-honest-distrust-lawmakers-and-car-salesmen

Mann, M. (n.d.). Headlines. Retrieved from http://www.columbia.edu/itc/journalism/isaacs/client_edit/Headlines.html

McCarthy, A. (2020, January 4). Obstruction of congress impeachment article is absolutely frivolous. Fox News. https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/obstruction-of-congress-impeachment-article-andrew-mccarthy

Silverman, H. (2020, February 17). A black college student was handcuffed facedown in the snow and threatened with a gun to his head by law enforcement who had the wrong guy, lawsuit says. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/17/us/black-swimmer-wrongfully-detained/index.html

The Media Insight Project. (2018, June 11). How Americans describe their news consumption behaviors. American Press Institute. https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/publications/reports/survey-research/americans-news-consumption/

USA Today. (2019, November 9). Nurse charged in beating death of impaired woman. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/nation/2019/11/08/nurse-charged-beating-death-impaired-woman/2534172001/

Categories: Jandoli Institute, Media, Research Essays, Writing Actross Disciplines

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