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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 03-Dec-17


Sunday 03-December-17

Subtle headlines and deeper psychology: language used in reporting of the retweet scandal

Donald Trump has expertly grabbed the headlines again, this time retweeting old videos posted by a small, far-right group in the UK. Unlike many others, who strongly criticized the president, Prime Minister Theresa May rather weakly just said it was 'wrong'.

Rather than go into the sordid wrongness and international damage of such acts (even leading Republican Paul Ryan seems appalled), let's look at how the major UK newspapers reported this, on Thursday, 30 November, 2017. In particular, it is interesting to look at the subtle effects of different wording.

The Telegraph: May attacks far-Right Trump tweets

The Times: May criticises Trump over far-right video tweets

The Guardian: May condemns Trump's far-right retweets

The Financial Times: Trump rebuked by Downing Street for retweeting posts by UK far-right group

First, look at the main verb. The Telegraph is a conservative newspaper, which is perhaps surprising as this is the most aggressive wording, with the language of war in 'attack'. The Times is more clinical, using 'criticises'. The Guardian uses the language of a judge condemning a prisoner, framing May in a morally superior role. The FT also places May in a superior position, but now as a parent rebuking a child.

As well as war language, the Telegraph has an embedded indictment of 'far-Right Trump'. This seems unlikely to be editorial accident as it aligns Trump with the extreme racists he retweets. Interesting also is the capitalized 'Right' (unlike other headlines), giving this extra significance as a proper noun.

The Guardian has the shortest headline. Brief headlines can add punch, while longer headlines, like the Financial Times, engages you for longer, giving more time for the message to sink in.

Three papers name the prime minister as 'May'. Using just the surname can be more depersonalizing and pejorative (this insult is frequently used for 'Trump'), although depending on context it can also lend authority (which seems the case here). The Financial Times interestingly uses the indirect metonymy of 'Downing Street', in the same way that 'The White House's may be used, sending a signal that this is a criticism from the whole UK Government, and not just Theresa May.

Headline writers know what they are saying, including from these serious broadsheets (the tabloids were more interested in local gossip). This analysis will not be a surprise to them. It is useful for the rest of is to watch the detail of language used and wonder about the subtle intent behind the words.

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