The Trouble with Headlines: ‘sometimes, we have to disappoint you’

It’s a conundrum.  If you’ve got a website and blogs etc. you generally have to comply with journalistic rules.  But a thoughtful piece – one that is “mindful” –requires a different approach.

In journalism courses, you are taught to have an inverted pyramid, the story is in the first sentence, the first paragraph has who, what, when, why, where and how and you get more detailed as you go on (so if it is cut by the sub-editor, they cut from the bottom and nothing important is lost).

It means that the reader can look at the title and perhaps the first paragraph, and get the gist of the story.  Then they can decide whether to read on.

Most people don’t read on and most of those who do, stop reading before the end because they’ve reached saturation point.  That’s why newspapers (on line or print) are all written like that).

This style suits real life.  People don’t like complexity, they want things quickly and easily. They want simple solutions, answers that allow you not to have to think any more and magic potions.

That explains the success of fad diet books, self-help gurus and TV finance pundits etc. who give people what they want, occasionally and situationally useful advice that 99% of the time is totally valueless, but that sounds like a simple solution, to remove the need for thought and to be a magic potion.

Unfortunately, it’s a general rule of life that simple, universal answers don’t exist – not ones that are of much use, anyway.  Any answer is only right about 1% of the time unless you’re very specific about the precise situation, so a general answer simply won’t apply to most people.

Take the “are there safe havens”? question.

It depends what you mean by safe.  It depends what your time-scale is.  It depends on your viewpoint: are you talking about fund investment and looking at safety relative to, say, gilts, are you looking at the psychological basis of concepts of “safety” (in which case Ken and I can probably produce a couple of books worth of discussion about “attachment”, “trust” and allied concepts), are you thinking of an underlying trait of optimism about the power of the market, are you looking at the rise of China and the political implications for capitalist and democratic systems in the wake of MPs expenses and Blair becoming a business consultant?

The idea behind Mindful Money is about considering those perspectives, about suggesting different ways to analyse the headlines.

This means it doesn’t always lend itself to the headlines and “sound bites” of conventional media, printed or on-line.

And that means that sometimes, we have to disappoint you, the reader.  We can’t give you a headline answer.

It offends the human desire to have a nice, simple, “this is the answer, now move on” statement that ties up the loose ends.

But it does mean that we’re open to a debate about whether a unitary point of view and a single sentence (or paragraph) answer to a complex problem is a useful thing to have.  Generally, it isn’t, because, if pressed, most people would admit that it is actually far more complex than that and they are only putting it into one sentence because that is what conventional journalism (and people’s attention span) dictates.

We’re not really too concerned about the headlines themselves, we want to be involved in the debate behind the headlines.

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  • Anonymous

    Kim – to quote from your article  ”unfortunately, it’s a general rule of life that simple, universal answers don’t exist – not the ones that are of much use, anyway. Reminds me of H.L. Mencken in that ” explanations exist; they have existed for all time. There is always a well-known solution to every human problem –  neat, plausible – and wrong” Good article, again.  

  • Kim Stephenson

     Thanks Ray,
    And thanks for the correct Menken quote!  I knew it as “for every complex problem there is an  an answer that is clear, simple and wrong”.  I did consider using it, and wasn’t sure I’d got it right (quotes get so mangled over time). And you using that version made me go to look up my book of quotations and you’re spot on!