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Some examples:

Why do news articles often refer to the leader as opposed to the country? After all unless the leader is a dictator, he/she doesn't do everything; they still need approval from parliament. Therefore unless the leader is speaking personally, they represent their country, their decisions are their country's decisions. To say for example that Duterte would send navy ships into the South China Sea shines the limelight on him. If it turns out well he gets all the accolades even though the members of his cabinet could deserve as much (or even more) credit; the same goes if it goes badly.

The news articles could (but don't) say instead:

  • The Philippines decides to send navy ships into the South China Sea to assert claim over resources
  • Russia's answer to U.S. sanctions is more economic isolation
  • UK poised to raise bar on climate goals
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    I somewhat challenge the premise of the question: The article about the Philippines is specifically about statements made by Mr. Duterte himself, rather than some general governmental decision or declaration. The article about the UK is specifically about the prospect of Mr. Johnson's political career in the face of the described challenge. If anything, the article on Russia might be said to be more about the Russian government as a whole than about Putin as a single person. – O. R. Mapper Apr 20 at 9:45
  • @O.R.Mapper I swapped the third source. About the Philippines article: Duterte did say the things, but he presumably has the backing of his cabinet (if he didn't have that anything he says won't happen anyway), so it is as much a government decision as it is his personal decision. – Allure Apr 20 at 12:20
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    Didn't you answer your own Q for most of those with "unless the leader is a dictator"? – Owen Reynolds Apr 20 at 15:05
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    Countries might also be referred to by their capital. "Moscows decision to....". You might find the same text referring to the same "thing" by multiple names. Moscow, Putin, the Russian Government might all mean the same thing. However, in your examples, its about the persons themselves, not the countries they represent (at least in Dutertes and Johnsons case). – Polygnome Apr 21 at 7:49
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    There are recognized stylebooks for such usage (in case you are looking for a non-opinion-based answer). – Keith McClary Apr 21 at 16:15
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Generally speaking, it's more precise. "The Philippines" (to use your first example) isn't an entity that makes decisions - it's a nation full of people of diverse backgrounds and opinions. In and of itself, it has no consciousness nor agency. The actions being taken are rightly attributed to the person(s) who have agency to make those choices (and/or power to enforce them); in this case, that's Duterte. It is frequently more accurate as a result, but that depends on the specifics of a given case and is beyond the scope of the question.

When you assign the choices of a leader to the whole of a nation, you lose sight of the fact that the human experience is very messy. Historically, this has not ever done anyone any good. In journalism there is a professional ethic towards precision and accuracy, and so if you know the name of the person who made the call, you should name the decision as theirs.

Especially in print media, authors cannot assume that their audience shares whatever cultural, professional, or intellectual context that they are writing from. In common conversation, you might say "The Philippines" and mean "The government thereof," or "the people thereof" or, "this specific set of islands in the west Pacific," but since that term can readily stand into so many places it creates ambiguity. Referring to the human actor who is making the choice, however, eliminates the ambiguity - save for (possibly) someone assuming that this was some kind of rogue action. That case, however, is covered by the fact that having your choices evaluated against the mandate of your office is part and parcel of being a political leader.

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    "isn't an entity that makes decisions": it absolutely is. "The Philippines" does not only refer to the nation as a whole, it also refers to the government, including legislature and courts. This answer is on the right track, but hasn't quite reached the correct conclusion. – phoog Apr 20 at 11:00
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    @phoog While saying the name of the president/prime minister instead of the country singles that president out of a decission that may has had many actors involved, using the name of the country spreads the responsability of a certain action to all its citizens, wether they agree with it or not. If this action is perceived as hostile towards the country where this newspaper is being read then using the name of the country versus using the name of the leader offer quite different perspectives: the latter is a criticism towards someone while the former is promoting xenophobia. – Rekesoft Apr 20 at 12:04
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    @phoog I concur. If this answer were valid, headlines would read "Putin's answer to Biden's administration sanctions..." – paulj Apr 20 at 12:53
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    @phoog You actually further demonstrate my implied point, which I'll edit to make explicitly part of this: Language is subjective. You may mean "The Philippines' Government" when you say "The Philippines." Depending upon the context of the conversation that may even be a legitimate working definition. But when you're printing headlines, you can't assume that everyone who reads your words is part of that context, and thus precision of language is more important, to the extent that it's possible to achieve. – William Walker III Apr 20 at 13:40
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    I'm well aware of the distinction between precision and accuracy. But this answer uses the word "accurate," which, if you mean "precise," is at best imprecise. Regardless, whether naming the leader is more precise than naming the country depends entirely on the topic of the article and on the message the headline writer intends to convey. It is for example imprecise to say "Biden collects income taxes." – phoog Apr 20 at 14:46
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Why do news articles often refer to the leader as opposed to the country?

Often it's because they're writing about the leader's actions, decisions, or policies rather than those attributable to the government as a whole. Another reason, in two of these three examples, is that the leaders in question have so much power that they are arguably dictators, not subject to any significant control by the legislature.

Heads of state, heads of government, and even corporate CEOs wield the power of the entity they control. Often much of the power they wield is delegated to them by the legislature or board of directors, leaving them with a good deal of personal discretion. A headline that names a leader may do so in recognition of that discretion.

Alternatively, in cases where leaders do not possess delegated authority, they may propose action to the legislature. In such cases, while the action would ultimately be taken with the legislature's approval, and therefore clearly be attributable collectively to the country's government, it is nonetheless readily identifiable as an initiative of the leader.

In the first example, people often do attribute military action to the country rather than to its military or political leaders. Headlines reporting the invasion of Poland spoke of "Germany," "German Army," "Nazi army," and "Hitler." In this case, Duterte is (I assume) both the commander in chief of the Philippine military and the source of Philippine foreign policy, so responsibility for actions of this sort really do reside with him, not with the legislature.

The second example is similar. Economic sanctions are a tool of foreign policy, and domestic economic policy is often the realm of the executive. Even if some elements of domestic economic policy (tariffs, perhaps) have to be enacted by the legislature, the impetus for changing the law will often come from the executive. The leader is the one responsible for the decisions being reported.

The third example is somewhat different. The article is cast as an analysis of Boris Johnson's premiership, which has involved other existential controversies not only threatening his party's majority in parliament but also implicating fundamental change in the UK's constitution. The principal such controversy, of course, was the departure from the European Union, which was Johnson's main issue and which has very directly led to the reinvigoration of the Scottish independence movement. The article isn't fundamentally about the UK's conflict with those who seek Scottish independence; it's about Johnson's political fortunes and about whether he can keep his commitment to UK together, whether he can manage the very serious consequences of his success in bringing about the central promise on which he was elected. In short, the headline names him because the article is about him.

unless the leader is speaking personally, they represent their country, their decisions are their country's decisions

That's true, but in writing these headlines, the papers presume that readers know that Duterte represents the Philippines, that Putin represents Russia, and that Johnson represents the United Kingdom.

To say for example that Duterte would send navy ships into the South China Sea shines the limelight on him. If it turns out well he gets all the accolades even though the members of his cabinet could deserve as much (or even more) credit; the same goes if it goes badly.

That's also true, and it's a big part of the answer to your question. These journalists have named these people in the headlines precisely because they want to put them in the limelight. In order to understand the international political stance of the Philippines or Russia, you need to understand the personality of Duterte or Putin. To understand the internal politics of the UK parliament, you need to understand Boris Johnson.

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  • I swapped the third article because as you pointed out, it deals a fair bit with Boris Johnson's career. – Allure Apr 20 at 12:22
  • (+1) I don't think the British or American media do that nearly as frequently when writing about, say, Nordic countries. – Relaxed Apr 20 at 12:46
  • @Allure ok, but the new third article is still about the PM pushing a policy initiative. I keep thinking about the US policy of taxing its citizens on worldwide income regardless of their place of residence. Nobody attributes that to any person, but that's probably because the policy has been in place for so many decades that nobody knows whose idea it was. New policies always come from someone, or at least some group of people. – phoog Apr 20 at 13:28
  • @Allure Furthermore, the new policy hasn't been enacted yet. You certainly can't say that "the UK is seeking to adopt a policy" when a significant minority of the legislature (or perhaps even a majority) doesn't support it. When the PM first announces the policy initiative, it's not clear how many support it. At that point it definitely belongs to the PM, and possibly to the PM's party, not to the country. – phoog Apr 20 at 13:29
  • Two of three? UK and which other? – Oleg V. Volkov Apr 21 at 5:04
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  • Putting a face on the story makes it easier for the reader to emotionally connect to the story. Instead of rents rise faster than wages it becomes heartless landlord evicts mother with three children.
  • Journalists might want to hold the leadership responsible for their policies, especially if they disagree. That is sometimes easier in the field of foreign policy, where some governments face fewer checks and balances than domestically.
  • By pinning actions on a foreign leader, one signals that e.g. sanctions will end after a regime change. Journalists are not government spokespersons, but they are influenced by the tone of public debate in their home country.
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    Fully agree with the first assertion. While journalists claim facts and truth in reporting, they heavily rely on dramatizing the events to draw the reader's attention, along the way to enlarge or shrink the image of a leader to fit their social-political agendas. – r13 Apr 20 at 12:34
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    I often notice a strong tendency (especially in case of bad news) to refer to the leader's name if the leader is on the opposite side of the political spectrum than the journal, and to the country if they're on the same side. The first to blame the leader, the second to feel pity and sympathy about the situation. – vsz Apr 20 at 12:36
  • @r13, I think they are at least as interested in generating clicks and advertising revenue as they are in their political agenda. Journalists want their paycheck, too. – o.m. Apr 20 at 15:40
  • I concur. "Agenda" wasn't a good choice of word. I think "baseline" might be better. – r13 Apr 20 at 16:09
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    @vsz Interesting point. I think it is true the other way around too, as they want to take some credits for their alignment with the right person :) – r13 Apr 20 at 16:14
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Because they are talking about the state as a political entity and most political entities are led by a single leader.

You might as well ask why companies are often referred to by the CEO. Yes we can get into the complexities of how power is distributed within organizations but humans are highly hierarchical creatures so looking to the person at the top as "the one in charge" has been a thing since time immemorial.

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Generally speaking, when the media says something like "Philippine's Duarte would...", "Putin's answer to...", "Boris Johnson poised to...", etc, the use of the leader's name is shorthand for the phrase "The administration of (leader X) in (country Y)". That's easier to see in the US because of the comparatively short terms of US Presidents; we frequently use phrases like "The former Trump administration" or "The Biden administration" to indicate which presidential era we are talking about.

In short:

  • A given country is administered (run) by a particular group of people
  • That administration has a particular person as its titular head
  • The convention is to refer to the actions of the entire administration as though they were the actions (by proxy) of that titular head

Note that we do the same thing in the business world, referring to (e.g.) Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos as though they were (somehow) the entirety of Apple Computer, FaceBook, Tesla, and Amazon. It's misleading, but much easier than constantly repeating "The company chaired by...".

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