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How News Headlines Make or Break the Public Mind

Published on Groundviews

The front page main headline is the focal point of a newspaper that grabs the attention of news consumers.  A main headline goes beyond merely describing the facts of a news story in a few words. As its major selling point to offer a unique product, the lead news article’s headline and article content express the attitudinal slant of a newspaper. It is the slant – the angle or way in which the facts are woven in the article – that attempts to resonate with news audience attitudes and thereby ensure a market’s loyalty to the newspaper.

The media landscape in Sri Lanka is both complex and vibrant partly because of the presence of trilingual news outlets. The advent of internet-based social media attracted large numbers of news consumers away from the professional news media industry. The attraction is the power of individual, personal choice of information products. The internet enables consumers of information and communication systems to actively and individually engage with the internet’s communications media and the industry that operates them.

As in other parts of the world, the once dominant, traditional news media industry – radio, TV and printed newspapers – also run their own social media platforms in order to compete with the rapid spread of news and other information in the online digital media.

The internet has prompted an intensified market competition for audiences within the news industry and competition between the news industry on one side and the rampant messaging of information and opinions on the social media on the other. How much does this intensified information competition and market orientation affect the provision of news to media audiences? Do the efforts to win and maintain audiences push the news media outlets to further echo their audiences’ own social attitudes on major national issues?

A study of the news publication approaches of two selected Sinhala and Tamil dailies, Lankadeepa and Virakesari, in reporting contemporary issues reveals the differences in reporting attitudes adopted by the media. A look at the main headlines in these national newspapers in July showed that the framing of newspaper reportage differently to different audiences could influence audience perspectives of the issue.

Sri Lanka witnessed multiple crucial socio-economic and political events amid the rapid spread of the Delta variant across the country. It is evident that Sinhala and Tamil media have focused their attention on separate issues and challenges confronting their target readership. In other words, the concerns of the ethnic minority groups in the post-conflict context are featured in Tamil media, unlike in Sinhala media. For example, the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s statement that the government is ready to work with the UN for accountability and reconciliation was the main headline only in Tamil media. Likewise, a statement by the Amnesty International on Sri Lanka’s status quo on the freedom of expression was exclusively reported in Tamil media.

Holding Provincial Council elections under a proportional representation system was a subject of discussion within political circles, especially among minority Tamil and Muslim political parties. Predictably, the Tamil press stated how several minority political parties raised their objection to any move to change the proportional representation system. The Sinhala press later reported the recommendation made by the Elections Commission to hold the Provincial Council elections under a 70-30 proportional representation system, in addition to highlighting the proposal submitted to “hold all three elections in the same manner.” This is a textbook case of how political narratives and events become newsworthy in different media discourses in keeping with the expectations, perceptions and preferences of news consumers who are ethnically homogeneous.

Another striking feature of Sinhala media is frequent reporting on drug arrests as opposed to Tamil media. Insignificant events that bear little national importance continue to occupy the front page in Sinhala media. The news report on the raid at an illegal gambling den is a case in point.

Similar news stories have appeared in both Sinhala and Tamil press on rare occasions. For instance, the teachers’ strike over salary anomalies garnered the coverage of both Sinhala and Tamil media, similar to the repeated news reports on the death of a girl who was employed at MP Rishad Bathiudeen’s residence in Colombo. Tamil media quoted the lawyer who appeared for the wife of the minister stating to the court that they were not produced to court within 24 hours of arrest. Neither Sinhala nor Tamil press withheld the identity of the deceased girl, throwing aside ethical principles in journalism. But the identity of the girl who was sexually trafficked online remained anonymous in Sinhala media. However, neither this child abuse incident nor the nurses’ strike was featured in the main headline in Tamil press.

Political issues were given different weightage in Sinhala and Tamil media. For example, the political comeback of Basil Rajapaksa and his appointment as Finance Minister dominated the headlines in Tamil press for three consecutive days. Contrastingly, the main headlines of Sinhala media focused on the child abuse case instead of reporting on Basil Rajapaksa’s entrance into parliamentary politics. Sinhala media reported the appointment of Duminda Silva as the Chairman of the Housing Development Authority whereas Tamil press later put a spotlight on the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka’s stance on granting of a presidential pardon to Duminda Silva.

Occurrences of sexist language use in Sinhala press needs to be examined. Headlines emphasising Covid-positive female garment factory workers and women arrested for drug trafficking are illustrative of gender discrimination in the media. Making matters worse, certain Sinhala terms used to refer to sexual abuse against women and children convey different connotations and varying personal meanings that could be replaced with more acceptable terms. Certain headlines in Sinhala media withheld information probably to create a sensational appeal. One headline said that Sri Lanka has obtained three big loans without mentioning the donor countries or agencies. Sensationalism in news coverage may provoke the reader but it is at the cost of ethical and professional journalism.

Newspaper headlines are often constructed and manipulated to create echo chambers resonating with the political ideologies of the readership. Besides the main headline, the photo on the front page as well as the political cartoon offer a glimpse into the political trajectory of a newspaper. The lack of exposure to opposing views could exacerbate the already tense relations between the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups, posing a disincentive to promote sustainable peace in the post-conflict context.

Since 2016, the social media platform Ethics Eye by Verité Research has monitored problematic media use. Their latest research publication reveals that racial profiling and language polarisation are key issues that have negative social ramifications on ethnic minorities.

The English media is not without its problems but its readership comprises people from different ethnic, faith and linguistic backgrounds. Some English media outlets are seen as a bridge between communities, contrary to Sinhala and Tamil media who cater to an audience that is ethnically homogeneous. This shows that most Sri Lankans are confined to a one-sided perspective due to not knowing each other’s language.

Every reader is different in her and his own way, not just individually but in terms of political opinions that shape their newspaper choice. The media should play a role in generating an enlightened public opinion without advancing its personal agenda. Yet media ownership has been the elephant in the room for decades although there has been calls for scrutiny of the faces behind media outlets.

The prevalence of partisan media is not unique to Sri Lanka. The US’ Fox News Channel favours the Republican Party whereas the New York Times has a left-wing bias. Exemplifying how partisan media was instrumental in stoking ethnic bias and stereotypes in the pre-internet era, Rwanda’s radio station RTLM gained notoriety for employing hate mongering rhetoric, inciting the majority Hutus against the ethnic Tutsis, which caused the 1994 genocide.

Heaping the blame on the media for amplifying societal divisions is unjust and unwise. Professional and ethical journalism coupled with informed media consumption should become the cornerstone of a vibrant and inclusive media landscape.

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Last modified: October 29, 2023

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