Behind the Headline

Behind the Headline

20 May, 2020

Behind every headline lies a bigger story, often deeper and more complex than the attention grabbing byline suggests.

We regularly use information to our advantage, be it advertising our successes or making a point in an argument. So chosing and summarising the right information and data is not just important for understanding a situation it is critical in communicating the answer to and convince a wider audience. In a time-poor world the headlines become the focal point of these efforts.

And although a single headline can look like a compelling story, typically it is one part of a bigger picture. With the attention on "fake news" you don't need to look far to see how headlines can focus on the wrong part of that story or be a misrepresentation of the facts.

Therefore learning how to utilise the right information to build a compelling yet accurate headline is essential. The best headlines summarise the underlying story and are supported by reliable substance. Getting this right from the start will help you tell a convincing story.

Focussing the message

In recent weeks, this has been exemplified by the use and presentation of a variety of data throughout the Covid-19 crisis. As we attempt to understand this virus and its impacts governments, scientists and others continue to assess, dissect and interrogate a wealth of data. The choice of data and the stories it is used to tell are the subject of continued scrutiny. Never more so than at daily government press conferences.

Amongst the variety of data presented one piece has stood out for me during the UK government’s press conferences: mobility. In particular the focus on road traffic and, in essence, car use. Each mention of this statistic has been accompanied by expressed concern over its increase, a slight increase when viewed against its wider trend. 

Increased car use worrying
Increased car use worrying, according to BBC Live reporting stream on 29th April 2020.

But what does the data mean?

From the concern conveyed by ministers and experts it becomes more apparant that car use is a proxy measure for possible spread of the virus via increased mobility and movement of individuals. However, this is never clearly explained. Instead the public are left with a series of questions:

Why is this indicator important?

Car use goes up and down on the graphs shown. But what exactly are they measuring with this data? What is it that car use is an indicator of? And why is car use per se worrisome? The headlines don't explain this and there is insufficient information elsewhere to outline this further.

How is it collated, from whom and using what methods?

The figures used in these updates are at best opaque about their sources and origins. It is unclear how this data has been compiled. There are no footnotes for the source of this data where the methods of collection can be viewed. Nor is it clear if this is a comprehensive data set or a sample. So how can we trust what is shown? Is too big a deal being made of a small sample size? [compare that to data linked to virus case numbers and the caution in the latter is extreme]

Is all car use equal?

Probably not. Last week members of my household have made very brief trips to the shops in the car. I know of at least 2 friends who have to work and again use the car but this time driving much further and more regularly. Whilst the media is fascinated by a 100 mile round trip to buy seafront fish and chips, the picture behind this data is one of different journey lengths and purposes.  These distinctions nuance what the data means for understanding real life issues.

How does this tie in with other patterns being watched and are there inconsistencies or correlations?

The advice given to employers has not been the clearest and there have been inconsistencies in the messaging. Key workers have been working throughout this crisis as have other other workers in industries that have kept operating. And as the government guidance changes, more people go back to work but they are discouraged from using public transport (if it is available), car use will go up. This is because of the effect and impact of other decisions being made elsewhere in government.


Problems of mixed messaging arise when once important indicators are suddenly disregarded.

How to interpret information for better headlines

Headlines based on numbers without clearer explanation fail to tell an accurate story.

Whether your use of data is solely for your own purposes or will be used to convince others of your argument, ensuring that you are using the right data in the right way is essential for ensuring its validity. To do so, always ask these four questions:

1. Why use this data? What will it show?

2. How is it collected, from whom and how?

3. What is the detail of the story the data provides?

4. What are the other causes, influences and effects on this data and the story it is telling?

Information and data can be simple and complex in equal measure. Being able to simply communicate a summary of the information whilst retaining its meaning and validity is an important skill to learn. Having the answers to the questions above and incorporating them succinctly and accurately into your communication can ensure your headline has substance and makes an effective impact.

"Headlines, in a way, are what mislead you because bad news is a headline, and gradual improvement is not."

Bill Gates

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