The Current State of News Headlines


Headlines are the marquees of news stories. These short statements located at the beginning of an article frame the information that is to follow. They encapsulate a portion of the story, presenting a snapshot of reality. The New York Times headlines an article as “Climate Change Will Disrupt Half of North America’s Bird Species.” National Geographic frames the same story as “Climate Change May Put Half of North American Birds at Risk of Extinction.” Headlines can distill reality, but with varying degrees of certainty, tone, and outcome.

For many outlets navigating the changes associated with digital journalism, news headlines have changed as well. In addition to traditional headlines that incorporate the essential elements of a story, more modern headlines also are written so as to instill curiosity, ask interesting questions, or lead to particular conclusions. Nontraditional headlines that attempt to drive visitors to a news page are called “Clickbait” by industry professionals. Academic researchers, like those overviewed in this paper, tend not to use the specific term “clickbait.” They have, however, studied different types of headlines ranging from traditional to sensationalist and many types in between.

The Center for Media Engagement has begun conducting research on the content and effects of different types of headlines. As the first part of our research efforts, we investigated what we know about the functions and types of headlines, their content and use in news stories, and their effects on audiences as examined in previous research.


Josh Scacco headshot

Joshua Scacco

Ashley Muddiman