Most readers have the attention span of a gnat.
Which is why the headline and the lede—the initial paragraph—are so critical to a story, and are often all that a reader will see. The impressions gained there are usually all that is left from “reading the news”. So headlines with emotive language and stories with misleading ledes can leave readers with a completely different impression to that which they would get from the whole story.
This is a case study of an ABC story on the unemployment benefit and its effects on the unemployed, seen through an examination of headline, lede and story.
As a teaser, here’s what I think would have been an accurate, if emotive, headline and lede:
Final Benefit Cut Leaves Jobless Struggling Permanently Below Poverty Line
Consecutive cuts to Jobseeker have returned the jobless to an existence well below the poverty line, with many struggling to meet basic needs. The Morrison government maintains that, technically, this last $50 per week cut is actually an increase.
As you’ve probably guessed, this isn’t the ABC’s headline and lede.
If you’d read that summary you’d have come away with a clear, quick image of what’s happening, and possibly wouldn’t have read further. Editors and journalists understand this, and write their stories accordingly: a headline that encapsulates the story, a lede paragraph that covers the main points and provides a quick summary, and then successive paragraphs that go into greater and greater detail.
The ABC streamlines this structure even further on its news landing page, offering only a headline and short lede.
Journalists write like this so that no matter when the reader stops reading, hopefully they will have absorbed the critical detail of the story. Readers who are accustomed to this structure rely on it so that they can quickly browse a series of headlines, probably only reading a few ledes, and quite possibly not finishing any story at all.
This style is called “the inverted pyramid”, and when it’s used correctly it allows the reader to gather a lot of information quickly⧞.
When it’s abused, the entire point of an article and a journalist’s work can be subverted by a poorly-written or worse, deliberately misleadingly written headline and lede. Alternatively, a story can be written so that deep down in its depths it is fair and balanced, but the first few paragraphs tell a completely different story. The ABC used that technique repeatedly during the summer of bushfires to hardly ever mention climate change.
This case study is about an ABC story about unemployment benefits. It’s complicated by the fact that the ABC regularly re-writes both front-page headlines and ledes, and also article contents. Unlike some more scrupulous news outlets the ABC doesn’t indicate what changes have been made, it just provides a time-stamp as a hint that something has changed. This ABC article is a case in point, having been changed once—so far—at the time of writing.
Here’s the original front-page hook…
As we examine the story, it’s important to remember that what you’ve read so far might be all that you read, so the impressions you gain are those that remain. If we stopped now, we’d understand that some unemployed people can’t manage their finances despite a rise in the unemployment benefit, the implication being that this is because they’ve become careless while enjoying a “generous supplement”, and now they’re complaining.
That’s a far cry from my headline and lede, but remember this is all you’ll understand if you stop reading now, which is the whole point.
If you clicked through anyway, here is the article’s full headline…
…which does nothing to dispel the message from the front page.
Ordinarily I’d now start to dissect the article starting with the headline, but it’s instructive in this case not only to deconstruct the original article, but to observe the changes made some hours later. So I’ll do that, point out the differences, and then deconstruct both.
Here’s the revised front-page hook:
Immediately there are some important things to note: firstly both main headlines clearly frame the change in the benefit as “a rate rise” or “a raise”, despite the fact that although technically correct, we all know that the practical effect of the “rise” will actually be a fall, relative to the amount they’re currently receiving, and have been receiving for a year.
The headline tells us that despite the benefit “rising”, however, unemployed people are complaining—either “rueing” it, or saying it will “make it worse”. So that’s the short, short version: rate is going up, yet unemployed are complaining.
The second thing to note is that “some” unemployed people in the first version has magically become “many” unemployed people in the space of a few hours. How the ABC decided how many was “some”, or how many is “many” they don’t say, but clearly they decided that they were dismissing a real concern too lightly. Possibly many, rather than some, unemployed people complained, I don’t know.
The third thing to note is the change of language. In the first lede, there is no quantification of the difference in payments, which as we know amounts to not $50 per week, but around $500 per week from the original increased benefit, nearly half the total benefit. However the original increase isn’t quantified, it’s simply referred to as a “generous supplement”. Firstly, “generous” is a loaded word, like so many in this article—like “rue” and “decry”, and there are more to come—and secondly the ABC kindly does the government’s work for it by referring to the current increase as a “supplement”.
While this may be technically correct, it was nevertheless an increase, and now it’s actually being decreased in absolute terms by the sleight of hand of removing the larger “supplement” and replacing it with an even smaller “raise”. However by referring to it as a “supplement” it becomes something that, reasonably, might go away, whereas almost universal opinion has been for over a decade that the amount should be both larger and permanent.
The second lede at least concedes the obvious: that the “raise” will leave the unemployed worse off, and it actually provides some quantification. However even that is ultimately misleading, because it’s only relative to the most recent reduction in the “generous” “supplement”, and ignores the actual history of the last twelve months.
Remember, if you stopped reading now, this would be your entire understanding of the story.
Now let’s look at the base of the pyramid, in both the original and updated stories. I’ve highlighted the changes (click for a larger version).
Superficially, all of the changes are improvements. “Some” unemployed has become “many” unemployed, the change is noted as permanent—unlike the “supplement”—and some actual dollar amounts are added to give some proportion to the changes. Most importantly, the article now clearly identifies that the unemployed will be worse off than they are currently.
So that’s all good, right?
Well, no. The story is still actually full of spin. Let’s have a look (click for a larger version).
I’ve highlighted in red all of the spin and propaganda that’s going on here.
First of all is the emotive language, in this case “decried”. They could have criticised it, or being straightforward Aussies they could have complained about it, or variously raised an issue with it, pointed it out, drawn attention to it, there are many possible constructions other than “decried”. Yet apparently that’s what the unemployed—either some or many—do. So straight away there’s a tone established, the unemployed aren’t just concerned or annoyed, they’re decrying. So immediately the question is: is the problem commensurate with the fuss? The rest of the sentence tells us: it’s simply because the “generous” supplement isn’t being retained in full. We’ve already dealt with the “supplement” issue—technically correct, but that makes its removal unexceptional, and the fact that it has been in place—at various amounts—for a full year is completely glossed over.
Straight away the story has been framed: there was a “generous” supplement, now it’s being—unsurprisingly—replaced by a smaller “raise” and yet the unemployed are “decrying” it. Right from the first sentence, it’s being gently suggested that this is an over-reaction.
Next, and consistently through the rest of the opening paragraphs the author sticks to the technically correct and totally misleading proposal that this amount is an increase. In fact, the entire point of the story is that it isn’t, and yet the language here keeps insisting that it is. Technically. So it’s immediately described as “an extra $25 a week”. How can that possibly be bad, right? In case that point hasn’t been made, the author tells us that it’s boosting the payment. Here’s another emotive word being used when there are plenty of neutral ones available. “Increase” is the painfully obvious one, but as we know even that is really a sleight of hand, because the nett effect of the “boost” or “increase” will be to depress the payment—if we’re going to use emotive language.
So now the tone is well and truly established. It was generous, they’re going to get extra anyway, and their payments are going to be boosted. Yet these people are decrying it. Tsk tsk.
Just in case you’re still not convinced, here’s the clincher. This is the first increase in decades! How good is that, to quote somebody or other. What transparent propaganda this is. Still the author is doggedly sticking to the technicality, even though the entire point is that it isn’t an increase in real terms, regardless of subsection whatever of the Act.
Then, just to rub salt into the wound, the cost of this increase is calculated over four years. We have to assume the ABC is simply stenographically reporting a number provided by the government, without either scrutiny or comment, because what a bizarre time frame this is! It’s not a budgeting period, it’s not an electoral cycle, it’s clearly being used simply to make the number look bigger than the $2.25b per year that it will actually cost. The final sting in the tail? Although the original increase is mentioned, it’s stipulated as being “in the early stages of the pandemic”!
Let’s see, how long has the pandemic been going? Roughly a year. How long was the original supplement in place? Six months. Hardly “early stages”, ABC! Moreover we know that although it was then reduced, it was still larger than it is now. It’s only very recently that it has reduced to the point where the “raise” will only be $50 per week less! “Early stages” indeed…
Also, it’s only a quibble, but the assumed number of unemployed that are going to cost $2.25b per year isn’t specified. If they’re getting $25 extra per week, and it will cost $2.25b per year, then the government is assuming there will be 1.7 million unemployed. That’s more than double the current number! So not only is the $9 billion inflated by quoting a four year figure, even the yearly figure looks unbelievable as well. However it looks like a lot of money, which is all that it was meant to do, to tie a neat bow around the entire proposition.
That proposition now looks like this: There was a generous increase, it’s now being reduced but it’s still extra anyway and it will boost payments. Not only that, it’s the first increase in decades, and it’s going to cost lots of money. Yet they’re decrying it. Tsk tsk.
Don’t forget, if we stopped reading now, this is the story we’d remember.
After all, we’re now up to the third paragraph, and the cost figure indicates that we’ve covered all the important details. What follows is detail, and we can stop reading now, right?
Well, quite obviously, no, but the next sentence didn’t exist in the first version, and reading the preceding paragraphs it’s clear why; the author never intended to put the real story so close to the top of the page. Guess what? They’re not better off after all, they’re worse off…
So, considering the two headlines—mine, and the ABC’s—which would you say is actually a better representation of the true state of affairs?
Yet even now in the ABC story half the truth is being conveniently elided. They may be “only” $50 a week worse off than immediately beforehand, but they’re $200 a week worse off than when the “generous” supplement was established, and it’s only recently that it has dwindled to the point where it’s still larger than the “increase”, but not by such an obviously huge amount.
What else hasn’t been mentioned at all? The poverty line. In all this talk of $50 and “generous” and all the rest, perhaps the most crucial aspect of this benefit is being quietly ignored. Except for the six months of the first increase, the benefit has been below the poverty line. It has been manifestly insufficient and inequitable, however that’s not mentioned yet, despite being one of the two most important aspects of the real story: the benefit has been reduced, again, and it’s further below the poverty line.
None of this gets pointed out. The technicalities of “supplement” and “increase” are used to write an introduction to the story that totally distorts what’s actually happening to the unemployed.
If we now read further†, we’ll discover that some of the real issues and real problems faced by the unemployed are actually canvassed. Now that the damage has been done by the headline and the base of the pyramid, the ABC can pretend to be fair and balanced in the depths of the article where nobody ever goes.
Also included, for balance, is the government’s argument that the increase is “fair” and that it has to be “sustainable”. Neither of these is backed up by the government. There’s absolutely no detail on how the number was arrived at, how it will affect the budget, or indeed why the supplement was no longer needed. Big surprise, none of these is remarked on or questioned by the ABC, because this article is about the unemployed “decrying” their “boost”.
I’ve saved the best bit bit to last. Throughout the article, the existence of the “supplement” isn’t discussed or questioned, beyond it being described spontaneously by the ABC as “generous”. So they’ve decided that much, but what they haven’t mentioned was why the supplement was needed in the first place, or why, if it was needed, it’s now not needed. Surely those would be important questions to cover in a story about the supplement going away? Yet they’re not.
That’s because the reason given by the government for establishing the “supplement” was totally and absolutely ridiculous, and because of that it would have been highly embarrassing to try to provide any kind of justification for removing it either. Why was it established? “Because people will lose their jobs“. I’m serious. That was the sole reason given for doubling the unemployment benefit, and for the first time in decades putting it above the poverty line. Now the unemployed, who, let’s be clear are still “people who have lost their jobs” have been pushed back below that line, but as the ABC will tell you, despite an increase they’re decrying it.
⧞ As you can tell I’m not using the inverted pyramid, for two reasons. Firstly, this isn’t a news story, it’s an opinion piece, and secondly I talk too much
† This is an archived copy, precisely because the original URL may point to a third or later version in future. The original version is archived here.
[In keeping with the ABC’s journalistic methods I’ll disclose that this story has been changed since it was first published. If you didn’t keep a copy of the original you’ll never know what I changed, because that’s how we professionals roll.]