A headline as audacious as “the most dangerous countries for women,” is bound to grab eyeballs and generate curiosity, a necessary element in good headlines, as budding copy editors are often told.
In the news portal era, one more element becomes essential: a headline’s ability to be a clickbait.
The Thomson Reuters survey team seems to have taken this advice at the cost of another more important one: the quality of the copy.
The much-discussed survey released this week labels India as the most-dangerous country for women, ahead of even war-torn Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia etc.
India, and other countries, are ranked on six parameters: Access to healthcare, discrimination against women, sexual violence, human trafficking, prevalence of cultural practices that suppress women etc.
The headline magnifies the findings of the survey -- like it should. It even sticks to the six-word limit -- the golden rule of crisp headlines. It sounds factual, evokes curiosity, and has a negative word (even researchers say that people respond quicker to negative words in headlines).
In all, it has all elements of
Only, it adds to the problem with the survey.
To be honest, it’s among the headline world’s worst cliches. It’s unoriginal, bland, and overused. BUT in the world of viral headlines, it is good. Here’s why:
The good headline It grabs attention and piques readers’ curiosity. It’s ultra specific. It’s clickbait. And that makes all the other factors redundant.
One major problem, though, is that it crowns a factually inaccurate ‘copy’ (in this case, the survey).
The bad copy
One important advice newbie editors get is to focus on the copy before moving to the headline. They are advised to look at the copy critically and check the accuracy of facts to ensure it doesn’t paint a false picture. That’s where the Thomson Reuters copy fails.
The assertion made by the ‘survey’ overlooks the fact that it’s after all a survey --an examination of opinions and not facts.
Secondly, the ‘list’ of most dangerous countries is based on a flawed process, and perhaps an incorrect sample. Apparently, the process of coming up with this list involved opinions of 543 experts spread across Europe, Africa, the Americas, South East Asia, South Asia, and the Pacific. These respondents were asked to choose five worst countries from United Nations’ 193 member countries.
So, the conclusions about the safest and the most unsafe countries are based on opinions of just 500 something people in all. The survey claims they are ‘experts’ of women-related issues.
Assuming Thomson Reuters ensured fair representation of all countries --a claim it doesn’t make-- only 2.8 people per country were chosen to comment on how good or bad it’s for its women. In fact, this minute sample of ‘experts’ could be smaller for few countries.
There’s doubt that all these experts have had first hand experience of detailed interactions with women of all the countries. Which means their responses themselves are based on half-baked information and opinions.
It’s a bad copy because it fails to check facts. Here’s a quick sample:
What the survey says: India ranks fourth worst in access to specialised healthcare, maternal mortality etc. Fact check: A look at what the World Bank data say about maternal mortality in India and few countries that have been ranked better than it:
(Maternal mortality per 1,00,000 population)
Sierra Leone: 1,360
Central African Republic: 882
Congo Dem. Rep. 693
What the survey says: India’s been ranked worst in prevalence of cultures, traditions that suppress women. These traditions include genital mutilation, child marriages etc. Fact check: India doesn’t even figure in UNICEF’s list of countries with FGM prevalence among girls younger than 14. Even the rate of child marriage in India is quite low as compared to many other countries. The effects of a bad copy
Everything in India is definitely not hunky-dory for women. However, projecting it as the most-dangerous country for women --when it’s clearly not-- negates the achievements of millions who are fighting the good fight against patriarchy and inequality.
The abuse that women in war-torn regions and deeply patriarchal societies have to face is unimaginable. Casually done surveys do more harm than good to their cause.
A good story requires legwork. A good survey at least needs a good and fair sample size.
In newsrooms, copies that don’t meet the minimum standards of factual accuracy are junked. Novice reporters who struggle to put their stories on paper are often suggested to work backwards, that’s start from the headline for clarity.
Here’s my headline suggestion for the Thomson Reuters survey: “The most dangerous countries for women: Perception vs reality”.It may not be the perfect six-word-headline, but it is closer to the reality. What this nonsensical survey projects is far disconnected from it.