Archive for the ‘Bias’ category

Headline Havoc: China’s Moon Probe

March 4, 2009

At 4:13pm March 1st, the Chinese lunar probe Chang’e-1 crashed into the surface of the moon in a planned collision. News sources documented this crash with various headlines. On one end of the scale, was Information Week and the BBC, both of which went for headlines that were more dramatic and provocative (IW: China Crashes Satellite Into Moon; BBC: Chinese Probe Crashes into Moon). While both sources qualified their headlines with subheadlines showing the planned nature of the crash (IW: The deliberate move was planned to give the People’s Republic lunar landing experience; BBC: A Chinese lunar probe has crashed into the moon in what Beijing has called a controlled collision), on first glance, the two headlines suggest the incompetence of the Chinese space program. The BBC’s sub-headline is even more skeptical, its wording questioning the information from Beijing.

On the other end of the scale is the headline from Shanghai Daily, understandably celebrating satellite, and calling its crash, however planned, a “moon-landing” instead (Shanghai Daily: Moon-Landing success for Chang’e-1). For comparison, the tone and wording of the Washington Post’s headline puts it squarely in the middle of the scale (WP: China lunar probe mission ends with planned crash.) 

My Two Cents:

While layout could have played into headline considerations, it seems unlikely that word length would have been the largest determinant of each headline’s tone. I would definitely be more interested in reading an article talking about China crashing a satellite into the moon-the Washington Post headline does not draw much of my interest. However, the BBC’s skepticism could be more indicative of the tone of English news in general, and cultural attitudes in the UK. All the articles had similar content. The Washington Post indicated that the story was from the Associated Press while the BBC did not. However, word-by-word similarities between the two news articles shows that they are from the same source. It becomes even more interesting then, to think about the BBC’s tone choices. Two complementary quotes from the news sources shows the difference between them even more. 

BBC: “China’s ever-more ambitious space programme includes plans for a space station and landing a man on the moon.”


WP: “Future ambitions including building a permanent orbiting space station and landing a man on the moon.”


1) Mainstream US news source, the Washington Post’s headline was as bland as it could have been, perhaps an indicator of the US’s wary congenial relations with China. Smaller news sources like Informationweek seem less constrained by US foreign policy and therefore freer to be provocative. 

2) If cultural attitudes of skepticism encourage the BBC to be skeptical in their headlines as well, British readers would take the BBC’s headlines with a grain of salt as well. Perhaps that headline is not as provocative to a British reader. However, in an international world, where the BBC is an extremely respected news source, the BBC’s skepticism may come off as truth instead of culture.  Should there be cultural translators for each country’s news? Is the reading of news for truth a practice that requires different lenses for each country?


Shanghai Daily
Washington Post