7. Invalidity

  • img SM Syano Musyimi
  • POSTED ON 18 Feb 2019


Validity, strictly speaking, is an attribute of an argument. If the premises of an argument are true, the conclusion must be true. For example: i) If Friday is the day before Saturday, and ii) Tomorrow is Saturday, then iii) Today must be Friday. There is no way i) and ii) can be true and iii) be false. This argument is therefore valid – the true conclusion must follow from true premises.


Have you ever read an intriguing news headline and clicked the link, only to find that the story was not quite as juicy as the headline suggested? I once read a headline that read ‘[X] declares election victory’, printed a day before the election results were meant to be known. Millions clicked the link only to find, one line into the main article, ‘X declares that the election will be a victory for democracy’. Anyone who reads news, blogs, or social media post will be familiar with this. We all know why they do this – they simply need to get online traffic, and invalid headlines will get them that.


I call this the invalidity problem of mass media because, in effect, headlines are conclusions. The reporter or journalist is meant to analyse the story and present it in the form of a headline so that we know in an instant what we would be reading about. Headlines are meant to be accurate guides. The story must therefore beget the headline in the same way that true premises of a valid argument must beget a true conclusion. Much of mass information, however, does not exhibit valid headlines.


So what? Surely, it’s not that bad, especially if you find out the truth once you’ve clicked on the headline and read the article right? Wrong! Invalid headlines are very dangerous. First, we judge which stories to read by their headlines and in so doing we scan far more headlines than we click on. While doing this we are passively being “informed”. I could claim that I know something about Boris Johnson lashing out at Theresa May, or Serena Williams starting a movement against sexism in tennis, or oil prices rising to record highs, simply because my eye glanced at the headlines, even though I never actually clicked on the articles. In reality, Boris Johnson may have made a simple rejoinder to a journalist (not even Theresa May), or Serena Williams got a 10% rise in followers on twitter, or oil prices reached a record high for this month only. So, the invalid headlines have influenced my beliefs even though I did not read their, and what does this misguidance lead to? – MISTAKES! I start to think that Theresa May seems more vulnerable than she is; that there’s an anti-sexist movement in tennis; or that I need to buy just a bit more or less fuel (or budget for it), all because I passively glanced at invalid headlines.


Secondly, invalid headlines build up narratives. You may find yourself at a dinner party telling a friend ‘Theresa May is always in trouble with her Cabinet’; or ‘Oil prices seem to be breaking through the ceiling all the time’, simply because headlines are invalid. Such a statement cannot fail to have an impact on the listener, especially if they are not really acquainted with the topic. In fact, that’s how most of us form many of our opinions. We hear some people expressing a belief and we simply accept it as knowledge.


Thirdly, invalid headlines enforce paradigms. If I regularly read a right-wing newspaper and all the headlines exaggerate negative stories of immigrants, what will that do to my perception of immigrants? Now considere the fact that many of these headlines will be invalid. When we started ThinkCitizen a leader of a Muslim organisation told me how a newspaper even photoshopped an image to portray a Muslim negatively. Photoshopped images are invalid simply because they are not true, and since they are the face of a story in the same way that headlines are, I treat them as conclusions. Again, you haven’t clicked on the article, but you’ve still got the message.


How do we protect ourselves from invalidity? Like paradigm bias, it is difficult. You not only have to click on every headline that you read to get more of the facts, but you also need to do the intellectual work of constantly matching every part of the story to the headline to see if they are consistent. For this we need news filters. Checking for invalidity is one of the things several meta-news entities do. However, they tell you about invalidity only after you’ve read the headline. Fact-checking is a sort of post-mortem of the media misguidance only after it’s had an impact on you. They cannot undo the psychological impact of reading the invalid headline for the first time. This is why we at ThinkCitizen filter news before we publish it first time so that whatever headline you read on our webpage has been checked for validity. All fact-checkers should do the same by finding a way of preventing the impact of invalid headlines on first-exposure.


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