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What To Know About Headlines To Stay Calm During a Pandemic

Here's what you can do to protect yourself from the emotional hijacking that’s happening to your brain right now

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A few days ago, Bloomberg ran a headline that said, “Massachusetts Virus Outbreak Looks Like Italy’s Just Two Weeks Ago.” 

That was my breaking point.

For most of my life, I believed what you believe: by watching the news you are acting as an informed citizen, doing your civic duty, educating yourself on what matters. I believed that watching the news meant I was combating ignorance and making myself smarter. 

We’ve all been raised to believe knowledge is power. Growing up Jewish this was particularly important since most of my family perished in the Holocaust. The topic of misinformation and propaganda was personally relevant, but moreover – the idea that your mind is something people can’t take from you permeated my upbringing. Don’t attach yourself to things, they said. Fill your head with information.

Knowledge is power.

Most of us think when we read the news we’re fulfilling this edict. Filling our heads with knowledge, making ourselves more powerful (or as we say, “in the know”). But that’s not actually what we’re doing. 

I’m going to explain to you why the media’s business model is antithetical to spreading useful information, why it causes more harm than good, and what you can do to protect yourself from the emotional hijacking that’s happening to you right now. 

But first I have to explain headlines.

Let me give you a little context as to why I’m the person you should listen to when it comes to headlines. In 2008, I was a research interviewer for a prestigious mood disorder clinic, part of Emory University School of Medicine’s Psychiatry Department. A mood disorder clinic means we studied, mostly, anxiety and depression. My job was to increase the number of patients we recruited into the study and then monitor them throughout the study. I didn’t know it at the time, but that job is called “marketing, advertising, and sales.” Back then, though, I mostly put out flyers in hospitals and local coffee shops, and took out radio ads.

Had I known then what I know now, I could have saved a lot more lives.

The flyers we hung up had the headline: “Are You Feeling Sad, Down, or Low?” 

Today, I can tell you this is an extremely patronizing and condescending headline. But back then, I didn’t know any better. I had no idea I was hanging up flyers that were having the opposite intended effect of what I needed them to do. I needed these flyers to attract people suffering from depression to my clinic to see if they qualified for our studies. The headline needed to be so persuasive that it caused someone with an illness that’s hallmark symptom is inaction, to take action.

Headlines are part of a discipline called, “copywriting.” Copywriting is the type of writing you see in ads, it’s designed to compel people to take action. To go from, “passively reading,” to “taking out my credit card because I must have this!!

Copy is the type of writing you use when you want someone to buy something. But today you see copywriting in lots of places because it turned out to be a compelling way to get people to click, share, and like content. In the digital marketing world, we call this, “conversion rate optimization,” or CRO. CRO is the combination of design and copy to persuade website visitors to click, like, buy, and share things.

What people don’t realize is to write great copy, you need empathy. You need kindness. And you need to listen.

You have to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re trying to reach with your headline. And the reason is because your headline needs to do more than capture their attention – it needs to compel them to take action, which means it needs to be persuasive. And in order to be persuasive, you need to understand a lot about the person you are trying to reach (hence the exercise in empathy). 

Headline writing, in many ways, is an exercise in empathy.

The very best headlines don’t feel like headlines at all, they read like a mirror of your thoughts. In my course, Headline School, I teach people how effective headlines chime in on the conversation already happening in the mind of your customer. And in order to be effective, a headline needs to be invisible

What that means is it doesn’t draw attention to itself. You don’t read a great headline and go, “Wow, what a great headline.” You read a great headline and go, “OMG I WANT TO BUY THIS!!!!”

And to achieve that end, you need to understand the context in which the reader is arriving at your headline, what’s on their mind, who are they, what they believe, how they speak, and tons more about them. When you can put yourself in their shoes and walk around there for a bit, you can construct a headline that will meet them where they are and grab their attention.

In the case of my depression clinic, a far more effective and empathic headline would have been: 

  • Why Do I Feel So $h*#%y When Nothing Is Wrong?
  • How To Know If You Have Depression
  • Are You Tired of Being Told to, “Just Push Through?”
  • Did You Know Sadness Isn’t The Main Symptom of Depression?
  • Why Are Top Psychologists Raving About This New Medicine That Treats Depression?

It still makes me furious that we missed this opportunity to connect deeper with our people.

It’s part of why I dedicated the next 10 years of my career to understanding how you get people to care – which is what GREAT copy is designed to do.

You want your headline to get people’s attention so much so that they take an action.

That action being to click, share, or buy. (I know I already said that but you need to read things more than once to remember and retain it). That is how advertising works.

You don’t *just* want attention because that doesn’t get people to buy your product. Attention, as advertisers will tell you, is not useful. Sales of your product are what are useful. The two work together to create the intended effect.

In advertising, your headline’s job is to get your reader to read the next line. To pull her through to the story you’re telling her about the problem she has and make the case for why she should buy the solution you sell. Your headlines have to do a lot of work and they need to get what’s called “a return.” AKA: They need to make money. 98% of people will read your headline, 2% of people read the rest of your ad. You write the headline for that 2%. They’re what we call, “the buyers.”

In media, however, you don’t have buyers like you do with an ad. It doesn’t actually matter to CNN if you read the entire article they’ve posted. It matters only that you click the headline. Once you click the headline, they can serve you ads, which is how they make money.

It doesn’t actually matter to CNN if you read the entire article they’ve posted.

They make money from serving you ads. Ads are not inherently bad or exploitative. Great ads are empathetic and useful, like in the case of my depression study flyers. Those were technically ads for FREE depression treatment.

Ads, when done right, should be helpful.

They’re matchmakers, matching your problem to the solution a company is selling. They don’t make you do anything, they simply create a compelling reason why you should care and why this product or service might be useful to you.

You are a human being in charge of your behavior, no one is holding a gun to your head insisting you buy things from ads. You can simply click away, turn the page, change the channel, or go do something else. 

This is not the case with media. And this has to do with the business model of news stations and media outlets, which have a very different need and use case for headlines.

The business model of news stations and media outlets is you.

They commoditize attention. You think you’re reading CNN.com or Buzzfeed for free and that they provide news and information. In reality, their job is to sell your attention to advertisers. That’s how they afford to provide you with “news” for “free.” Because it’s not really free. Someone is paying for it. And that someone is companies.

Again, none of this is inherently bad or malicious. Companies are not evil. Incentives are. And in the case of media, the incentives are misaligned with the stated goals.

News is supposed to provide an unbiased source of information to an interested public. And in order to do that you need money as you can’t run a company without cash to pay your staff. There’s nothing inherently wrong or bad about that either.

Where it gets muddy is how they make their money and what that business model incentivizes them to do.

In order to make money to support their staff and continue to create and share the news (“for free”), media outlets have to retain your attention. And the way you retain someone’s attention, well, there are a lot of ways – but the most effective way is fear. 

The way you retain someone’s attention is with fear. 

Fear, hype, sensationalism, panic, outrage. That’s what we click on.

You are a human being which means you are a highly impressionable emotional animal (or as renown behavioral economist Dan Ariely calls it, predictably irrational).

And when you’re gripped with fear, as you might be during the threat of a global pandemic, you do what we all do: Panic. And search for more information (as a sensible “action-taking” solution to assuaging your fear). And where will you search: in content, in the media, on TV, in the news.

I’m willing to bet not a single person reading this, when you first heard about the Coronavirus, thought, “I should check out a book at the library on pandemics and infectious disease.”  Of course not, that’s a lot of work! Instead, you probably opened Twitter or listened to a podcast that had an impressive-sounding physician featured as a guest.

We need to be enticed to click on things and we don’t click on things that sound boring or laborious.

You will never click on or watch, “Ordinary Man Has a Regular Day.” You click on, “Florida Man Found Selling Heroin Lined Tacos Outside of Grocery Store,” or “Why You Should Stock Up on Toilet Paper Right Now,” or “Are You Making These Common Money Mistakes?”

This is called selection bias. We choose the stories that will make you click and we avoid the ones that you won’t care about. We have no incentive to share something that will bore you. And it creates an effect called, “agenda-setting,” which is the illusion that these are the only important things going on in the world.

When really, you’re reading a carefully (or sloppily) curated list of stories chosen for you by people who are paid by clicks.

That’s the problem with the business model.

Because the things that bore you are generally where the truth is hiding.

In advertising, it’s clear that a company is trying to persuade you to buy their product. In media, you hide under the guise of objectivity and civic duty, when really you’re infecting the public with fear. 

We don’t have a misinformation problem. We have a fear problem. 

It’s 2020 in America, you are drowning in information. You are holding a device in your hand that has more power than the Saturn V rocket that got Neil Armstrong to the moon and brought Jim Lovell and his crew back to Earth. Khan Academy exists, many textbooks are free online, there are billions of blogs publishing billions of articles each and every day. 

When you deliberately choose headlines that entice clicks over thoughtful reading, you infect the population with fear. You have to. It’s what keeps us coming back for more. 

Here’s the problem with fear: No one has ever made a good decision in their life based on fear. 

Fear is by definition afraid. And when you’re afraid you become irrational. Fear basically hijacks your brain to be in fight or flight mode, gets you all stressed out and hopped up on cortisol, and wrecks havoc on your insides.

Fear is what makes people mean to each other, divides us, fuels racism, xenophobia, and homophobia . It makes us petty, defensive, conspiratorial, individualistic. It also makes us victims of our biases (which are always there, they’re just not in the driver’s seat of your decision making all the time) and, more frighteningly, susceptible to a LOT of cognitive and logical biases, such as:

Ad hominem, moral equivalence, straw man arguments, the false dilemma, circular arguments, the bandwagon, appeal to authority, the domino theory, hasty generalizations, anecdotal evidence, the correlation/Causation Fallacy, and many, many more.

Point is: You can’t think straight when you’re afraid.

Which brings us back to the pandemic. 

Did you know, if you’re reading this, you have lived through other pandemics? Yup. Several actually. You didn’t know about them (neither did I). You didn’t know about them because the media didn’t create the illusion of mass panic. And they didn’t create the illusion of mass panic because they weren’t panicked. They thought what they were supposed to think, “this is boring. No one will click on this.”

Which is precisely what happened. You heard about Swine Flu but you don’t know nearly as much about it as you do Coronavirus. 

Now, HOLD UP – I hear you. “But Margo, Coronavirus is way more contagious and spreading at an alarming rate of [insert stats].”

Part of what we’re trained to do as copywriters is pick out the information you’re most likely to pay attention to. “Inform the public” is one way to spin it, the other way to spin it is, “make mountains out of molehills, lose important context, and become an armchair expert in order to get people’s attention and continue to serve them ads.”

Whenever you see any ONE item eating up the media’s attention, you have to ask yourself to pause. 

The world is large and multifaceted and there is never, ever, one issue that’s eating us. Emergency situation or not. There are more angles, there are more issues, there are more positive things, there are more boring things. 

I’m not suggesting this issue isn’t serious. Coronavirus is serious. I’m suggesting that the subsequent panic is optional.

Let’s revisit the headline I opened this article with: “Massachusetts Virus Outbreak Looks Like Italy’s Just Two Weeks Ago.” 

What do you stand to gain from a headline like this? How does this HELP people who read it?

Answer: It doesn’t.

You might skim it and believe for a moment that you’re being informed, when really you’re being emotionally exploited for clicks.

A headline like this does nothing but make you TERRIFIED. Right now, all of America [who reads the news or Twitter] is sitting at home wondering whether they or someone they love is going to be one of the 1.2 million estimated to get Coronavirus and die.

This is not an informed public. This is a terrified public. 

You cannot live your life wondering if this is going to be the day you contract a super scary disease. If media companies cared about giving you information they’d do the one thing they’re not doing: teaching you media literacy. Calming you down. Training their staff on data literacy. Running headlines that lose them money because they’d require you to read an entire article to the end. 

Asking companies to lose money is not the way to solve this problem. Demanding FREE CONTENT 24/7 is part of the problem. You’re seeing it with Facebook right before your eyes. Facebook is not a data and privacy issue – it’s a business model issue.

You cannot provide something FREE in a capitalist economy. If you want better information, if you want your data to stay private, if you want your attention to stop being exploited – we need to pay for our information, for our services, and for our products. I am not optimistic that that will happen, but I can tell you with certainty that if we continue to pretend our news is a civic service and is FREE – your mental, emotional, and physical health is at risk. 

If we continue to pretend our news is a civic service and is FREE – your mental, emotional, and physical health is at risk. 

Nothing is free. You are the product. You are what CNN is selling to its clients.

Which wouldn’t be problematic if it was understood – the way it’s understood that when I write an ad or sales page, I’m selling you something. Sales is not bad or evilmaking money isn’t either. What’s bad and evil is lying about how you’re doing it and what your company stands for.

What’s bad and evil using fear, sensationalism, hype, and panic to create traffic for your website without any regard to the consequences.

More likely, we know the consequences. I don’t think the public is stupid, I don’t think you’re stupid. I think you’re afraid. And I believe, sincerely, that many people behind the crappy headlines are also afraid. Afraid of losing their jobs or being unable to feed their kids. Afraid, at the moment, of maybe dying.

I commend those who are trying to change the media game with gated content, Patreon, membership models, etc. It’s an uphill battle and it requires way more than an innovative business model: It requires we change the culture. That after 75 years of “free” content we stop expecting content to be free (or if it’s free, expecting it is biased because someone has to pay for free. And right now the person paying for FREE is you).

As we walk into this marathon of the next 12 months, I beg of you, turn off major news networks. Read a book. Listen to podcasts that are more than 45 minutes in length. Consider the source material your “news” is relying on for information. Do not trust your feelings when they tell you to panic or worry, understand that those are manufactured by media outlets to engender clicks.

Disconnect yourself from outrage culture. 

The worst possible thing to do for your immune system is to live in a constant state of stress.

The story you’re telling yourself is you can’t disconnect because you won’t be “informed.” I’m telling you: You’re not informed as it is. The only thing you have to gain by strategically disconnecting is your sanity.

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