Tuesday, October 26

The art of writing relevant headlines

A few days ago, the newspaper El País published an interview with the PP deputy Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo titled with the following extract in quotation marks: Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo: “The Civil War occurred after a coup d’état“.

The headline gave rise to a conversation between journalists on Twitter pointing out how interesting the headline is: on the one hand, it is somewhat strange to raise to a headline what apparently is nothing more than the enunciation of an objective historical fact (that the Spanish Civil War occurred as a result of the coup d’état of ’36). But at the same time, the existence of a revisionist sector within the PP that questions this fact makes the quotation mark a relevant headline.

The choice of this headline (whose content is apparently obvious, but journalistically attractive) is actually a good example of what is known in linguistics as the relevance theory, a theory formulated by the linguists Sperber and Wilson in 1986 and that supposes a twist on the maxims of Grice (of which we already spoke here in their day).

Relevance theory seeks to explain how speakers interpret statements. After all, almost everything we say in conversation is incomplete, ambiguous, or presupposes a prior knowledge of the world. Linguistic structures with a similar superficial appearance can hide very different communicative intentions: Can you pass me the salt? (petition) Would you like a coffee? (offering) But do you know what time it is? (reproach). What you want to transmit almost never coincides with what is expressed literally in the conversation, so the sender and receiver have to be actively reconstructing shared contexts and assuming the intention with which the interlocutor said something in order to understand each other. Even so, the speakers get around these linguistic pitfalls without problems and manage to bring the communication to fruition. How is it possible that, given all the possible interpretations that a statement has, the speakers know how to select the appropriate one? How do speakers know which interpretation is the most relevant?

According to relevance theory, two antagonistic forces intervene in communication: on the one hand, our desire to incorporate new information from the world that is useful to us; on the other, our natural laziness. To judge how relevant something they tell us is, we have to weigh two aspects: how informative is the content of the message they are giving us (how much does it make us modify or reinforce our previous knowledge of the world) and how expensive it is for us. decode the message. Faced with a certain statement, the speakers will tend to be left with that interpretation whose content is more informative but that does not take us too much effort to decode. In other words, we will prefer the interpretation that provides us with the most information at the lowest processing cost.

An interpretation that is extremely simple to process but with a content that is hardly informative will be considered less relevant than another interpretation with more intricacies in decoding but whose content has a great effect on our knowledge of the world. On the other hand, no matter how interesting a given interpretation may be, if it is unintelligible (too expensive to process), the speaker will assign it low relevance.

Drawing a parallel, we could think of relevance as how appealing a movie is to us. We will be willing to swallow a movie even if its plot is difficult to follow (because it has jumps in time, for example), as long as we consider that the content has something interesting to contribute. It can also happen that, if the plot is excessively confusing, we end up disconnecting, no matter how deep the ultimate message that the film wanted to convey to us. On the other hand, as easy to follow as it is, it is unlikely that an adult would be in the business of plugging in an episode of Dora the Explorer for fun because the simplicity of the plot does not compensate for the lack of interest in the content.

Returning to the headline of El País, a headline is good if it achieves the maximum possible effect at the lowest cost of linguistic decoding, understanding that a statement is effective if it leads the reader to update some aspect of their knowledge of the world. In the case of the quotation mark that titles the interview (“The Civil War occurred after a coup d’état”), the simplest interpretation would be to think that Álvarez de Toledo is simply stating an objective fact (such as “Water boils at 100ºC “or” The Earth is round “), but this interpretation would be informatively very unsatisfactory (it would not produce any effect because it would not suppose any update in the reader’s knowledge) and therefore it would be of little relevance. It is only possible to interpret it as relevant knowing (or assuming at least) that there is a context in which there is a revisionist current that doubts that the coup was the trigger for the Civil War. This perspective is interpretively somewhat more expensive (it involves us knowing or reconstructing the context) but highly informative (a PP deputy distances herself from these revisionist theses and incidentally disavows the head of her party), which results in optimal relevance .

From this perspective, the creation of headlines is revealed almost as a work of linguistic goldsmith. It is not about understanding the headline as a summary of the article (it is not), but about taking advantage of its privileged position within the piece to treat it as the pragmatic stocks that it is. The creation of headlines is a fine task that involves an in-depth understanding of the reader’s knowledge of the world of the medium and knowing his expectations (that is, being clear about the shared context between the reader and the news) in order to offer him the information most relevant possible, that is, the one that produces the greatest effect in the simplest way possible.