Published: 00:54, April 11, 2024
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The secret world of headline writers
By Michael Edesess

The New York Times recently published an article headlined Leaked Files Show the Secret World of China’s Hackers for Hire. The subheading is China has increasingly turned to private companies in campaigns to hack foreign governments and control its domestic population.

I don’t know about you, but I read a lot more headlines than articles. I even read a lot more headlines and subheadings than the first lines of articles. There’s no reliable research to tell us how many more people read only headlines rather than articles, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I’m not that much different from most people.

As people who write articles themselves know, they are usually not allowed to write their own headlines. That is the prerogative of the editors of the publication they are writing for. The New York Times has even written about the rules for editors writing its headlines — though I suspect most rules are unwritten. (Believe it or not, there’s even an award for headline writing.) According to the Times article, the main thing about how to write headlines is “vivid wording, a conversational tone and internal tension”. To create tension, it presumably helps to include words like “leaked files” and “secret world” in the headline.

Given how many more people presumably read only headlines than articles, the headline writers have a very influential job. They can create tension where there might not otherwise be any. They can build on tension already accumulated in the public mind, often due to headlines that those same headline writers or their colleagues have previously written.

Keep this in mind when reading the Times article cited above. The tension, of course, arises from the United States’ (and the “free world’s”) presumed conflict with China.

The result of this presumption, largely created by the media itself, is known in the academic study of international politics as the “security dilemma”. The security dilemma describes how one state’s actions to make itself more secure — building armaments, putting military forces on alert, forming new alliances — tend to make other states less secure and lead them to respond in kind. The result is a tightening spiral of hostility that leaves neither side better off than before.

Headline writers are part of the juggernaut that accelerates the security dilemma spiral. This can lead to declining mutual understanding, increased tensions, and ultimately unnecessary warfare. When they write their headlines, headline writers should be mindful of their role

Despite the dark tone of the Times article, particularly its headline, it should go without saying that the activities it attributes to China are nothing new. The US does it, too, and many other countries as well. If we couldn’t have guessed it anyway, we were informed of it by Edward Snowden’s leaked documents in 2013, in which he revealed, among many other things, that the US National Security Agency had tapped the phone calls of the then-German chancellor Angela Merkel. Even as far back as the early 1960s, extensive surveillance was conducted on civil rights leader Martin Luther King by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose director, J Edgar Hoover, despised King and regarded him as an internal enemy.

Surveillance incidents go back even further, at least to when an American U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers was shot down over Russia in May 1960. US officials initially described it as a “routine weather flight” that had accidentally drifted over Soviet air space. When the Soviets revealed that Powers was alive and in captivity, the then-US president Dwight Eisenhower finally had to admit that it was a spy mission. This pattern of spying and coy denials has continued ever since, and many countries have participated. Since that time, of course, unmanned surveillance has become much more sophisticated and wide-ranging.

Early last year, there was a security scare in the US because a giant Chinese balloon visible to the naked eye was spotted over Montana. Virtually every US media headline referred to it as a “spy balloon” despite China’s contention that it was a weather balloon blown off course. Headlines implied, sinisterly, that the balloon could send data back to Beijing. The implied nefariousness of this revelation should have been supremely silly to any traveler who knows you can buy a tiny chip for $30 to put in your luggage to track it across the globe. (The Pentagon later said that the balloon did not collect any information, though it subtly implied that this was — implausibly — because it shot it down at an estimated cost of more than $2 million after it had traversed the entirety of the US). This incident even caused US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to Beijing in retaliation.

While certainly intrusive, unmanned surveillance as a security measure is relatively cost-effective and less directly threatening than military measures such as cruising battleships or fighter jets close to a suspected adversary’s coastline or aiming nuclear-tipped missiles at them. That is why it will continue, and there is no sense in tinging it with outrageously insidious motives in headlines.

The problem with the escalating series of “internal tension” headlines in US and Western media on the subject of China — even if they’re only designed, as the Times article on headline-writing implies, to entice readers to read further (which they often don’t do because readers infer the gist from the headline) — is that they contribute to the security dilemma: the notion that the nation has to tighten its security because the other nation’s security-tightening is seen as aggression.

Thus, headline writers are part of the juggernaut that accelerates the security dilemma spiral. This can lead to declining mutual understanding, increased tensions, and ultimately unnecessary warfare. When they write their headlines, headline writers should be mindful of their role.

The author is a mathematician and economist with expertise in finance, energy, and sustainable development. He is an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.