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SPOTLIGHT

Skimming the Headlines is Fine

(unless you want to really understand the news story)

See what we did there?

It's a common experience. You read a counter-intuitive headline, click to read the rest of the story, then realize with some irritation that trusting the headline alone to give the gist of the story would have left you with a flawed understanding of the events or ideas being reported. It's irritating, not least because you suspect you've done that very thing a few times, and some of what you think you know is probably wrong.

Maybe you saw recent examples of this in a widely-reported study about higher education. Headlines suggested that an associate degree from a community college — rather than a bachelor's degree from a four-year college — offers the best path to a high-paying career. These headlines were variations on the theme of "Community college is the path to big money," and "Community college grads make more money than four-year grads!" That's amazing! More pay with less education! Who wouldn't click on that?

But following these sorts of links would have led you to facts that don't quite justify the headlines. The gist is that if you get an associate degree and start work as a lab tech or a paralegal, you can make a good salary pretty quickly. That's true. You may even (at first) out-earn (some) recent college grads. That's also true. But the research these stories were describing was first published in a Georgetown University report titled "Career and Technical Education: Five Ways That Pay Along the Way to the B.A." That report begins: "A four-year degree is the surest path to a middle class job."

See how the actual information does not support what the headlines implied? Community college can be a very valuable path and can lead to lucrative employment. Nonetheless, in most cases — both immediately and long-term — a four-year degree leads to better compensation. The headlines gave an incorrect impression.

Have you seen other examples of misleading headlines? What effect do you think this common practice might have on some readers? Do you think some media sources are more reliable than others regarding these practices?

It's generally a good idea to (a) avoid jumping to conclusions based on headlines, (b) do your own thinking, and (c) use the vast wealth of internet resources to dig a little deeper into the facts.