MIDWAY: Do you get it?

In one of his books, V S Naipaul, a famous novelist, writes of the influence of headlines on the public perception of news — most people often don’t read the newspaper stories. Instead,

they rely on the headlines and sub-heads. That means the headlines have a helluva influence on people’s perception of news. A few weeks back, a headline in several national dailies put me in a similar situation. “Visa for India”, it screamed. Alarmed, as I skimmed through the contents, I tried to figure out why our closest neighbour was imposing this new entry regulation against the existing bilateral arrangement.

I began to speculate even before I started down the first column. Maybe, it was because of one or more of the problems such as these-border infiltration, insurgency and the never-ending water disputes. Had I gone no further into the story, I might perhaps have ended up, though for a short time, mulling over what next. Right through the first line into the second, however, I learnt that it was not about any travel document, but about the visa card business people use. Writing news headlines has become much like writing advertising slogans. Our newspapers sport such headlines because they want to boost sales even if it means being less than honest with their readers. Reading newspapers means, to most readers, no more than scanning the headlines. Hawkers around Ratna Park and elsewhere have mastered the trick no less. The way they shout the headlines makes the news sound even more important. A number of times I have fallen into this trap myself.

The tabloid press is even freer and more inventive with juicy headlines. One weekly came out with a near-banner “Bhattarai arrested,” and what reader would not have supposed Dr Baburam, until he came to some unknown figure in Kavre the contents referred to further down the column? This is just one of the tricks of trade of most of our journos, especially of the weekly variety. Forget the principles of journalism, but we have to admit that our headline writers are not far behind their counterparts in London tabloids in their capacity for innovation, and far ahead in creating a different impression from what the matter inside would allow you to have.