First Impressions

Front page headlines are a first impression of the news of the day. Newspapers consider them carefully because it is well known that the front page headline will colour the way we see the world events. Look at the front page of The News today. The headline reads, “Obama asks Pak Army to do more”.

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The News, 17 December 2010

Here’s the first paragraph of the article, which sets the tone for the story:

As a new US policy review on Thursday found al-Qaeda in Pakistan weaker than ever, US President Barack Obama, acknowledged progress, though slow, in defeating al-Qaeda and Taliban in the border region of Afghanistan. However, he asked Pakistan, without mincing words, to do more militarily in the tribal areas.

Between this and the menacing photograph used (a photo that is not even from the speech) clearly leaves the public with the impression that an angry Barack Obama is bullying Pakistan’s military.

And The News is not the only media group to define Obama’s speech in this way. Actually Dawn‘s front page article is quite similar, even going so far as to define the American president’s speech as “adopting a classic carrot-and-stick combination”.

Dawn, 17 December 2010

Actually, Obama never uses the words ‘do more’ which raises the question is it a mantra for American officials, or for a political group that wants the public to believe that US is bullying Pakistan.

And no carrots and sticks were discussed either. In fact, reading the transcript of Obama’s speech gives a much different perspective than either headline. Here is what American President Barack Obama actually said about Pakistan:

Finally, we will continue to focus on our relationship with Pakistan. Increasingly, the Pakistani government recognizes that terrorist networks in its border regions are a threat to all our countries, especially Pakistan. We’ve welcomed major Pakistani offensives in the tribal regions. We will continue to help strengthen Pakistanis’ capacity to root out terrorists. Nevertheless, progress has not come fast enough. So we will continue to insist to Pakistani leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders must be dealt with.

At the same time, we need to support the economic and political development that is critical to Pakistan’s future. As part of our strategic dialogue with Pakistan, we will work to deepen trust and cooperation. We’ll speed up our investment in civilian institutions and projects that improve the lives of Pakistanis. We’ll intensify our efforts to encourage closer cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And, next year, I look forward to an exchange of visits, including my visit to Pakistan, because the United States is committed to an enduring partnership that helps deliver improved security, development, and justice for the Pakistani people.

This is a far different person speaking than the angry bully that is portrayed on the front page of The News. Actually, the rest of Sami Abraham’s article portrays a very different event, one much more like the impression one gets from reading the actual transcripts. President Obama even said that he is looking forward to visiting Pakistan and is committed to improved security and justice for the Pakistani people. So why the portrait of a bully Obama?

Sadly, this is not the first time that headlines have presented asensational and misleading first impression. Perhaps this is an example of what Cyril Almeida calls, “massaging public opinion”.

The fake WikiLeaks cables give the first public hint about how opinion is being shaped in this country right now. Unpatriotic, secular, godless liberals may sniff about such naked manipulation, but the smart money is on a population raised on a diet of conspiracy and paranoia swallowing it as yet more evidence of external plots against the country.

It is no secret that a particular political constituency considers “do more” to be the greatest insult of all time. And it is also no secret that this is a very vocal group who would like to see the Army disengage from cooperation with the Americans. But these are political opinions and belong on the opinion page, not front page headlines. Mischaracterizing the speech of a foreign leader on the front page headline is beneath the professionalism of our media.

It is also possible that these newspapers know that such headlines will simply sell better. Certainly the political tendencies of Dawn‘s editors are not the same as The Nation (which, it should be recognized, had the most objective headline of the three!). But it is much more profitable to have a dramatic front page story than a report that relations are respectful and improving. Whether headlines are being written to promote a political agenda or to simply sell more newspapers, however, the results are the same.

Many people don’t read past the headlines of a newspaper. It is the first thing that jumps at you when walk by a newspaper stand, and thus it is the image the sticks in your memory. Even if you read the entire article, your first impression will still be coloured by the headline and opening paragraph that characterizes the story. So first impressions are lasting – but what if they are wrong? In the case of media impressions, the result is we are left with a lastingly misinformed public.

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One Response to “First Impressions”

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