"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Monday, February 22, 2010

Misleading Denial-Friendly Headlines

At that link Joe Romm objects to the story, but I think the headline is far more destructive and misleading than the story.

There's a persistent pattern of climate stories where the headline or subhead does not actually match the story. It seems to me that the headline is the most important part of a story. I am led to understand that the person writing the headline is usually not the person writing the story. It appears that there is absolutely zero accountability for this process; even the very modest consequences that go to uncorrected bad reporting and bad punditry don't seem to accrue to bad headlines.

This loophole has got to go.

Anybody have more examples? Let's make a collection.


Hank Roberts said...

Want to set any limit to the type, amount, and date of teh crazy?

March 24, 2006
London 'under water by 2100' as Antarctica crumbles into the sea


British Researchers Attack Sea-Level Rise 'Apocalypse’
Sunday, 10 January 2010 14:09 Jonathan Leake, The Sunday Times

Climate science faces a new controversy after the Met Office denounced research from the Copenhagen summit which suggested that global warming could raise sea levels by 6ft by 2100....


Michael Tobis said...

Your second link does not work. There's a Google cache.

It's a Leake story from the Times of London, so no surprise that it is one-sided, and I'll agree that the headline overstates the case a bit.

Unknown said...

Make a collection and sort by newspaper &c.

David B. Benson said...

Standarly the reporter files the story with the editor, who edits it. The headlines are written by a headline writer as the pages are composed (and the story cut from the bottom up to fit). The headlines need to draw attention to the story and fit in the available space.

The person doing the composing is sometimes called a copy editor and typically works under tremendous time pressure. Anyway, (s)he probably knows even less about climatology than the story editors who know, I suppose, even less about climatology than the reporters.

Unknown said...

"I am led to understand that the person writing the headline is usually not the person writing the story."

This is generally true for newspapers, not magazines. Or, regarding the latter, writers at least have a say in the matter.

Blog headers are considered a different animal, and need not reflect the gist of the post, because the heads often play off the first line.

Interestingly, Times op-ed writers can write their own column headlines.

Hank Roberts said...

I'd ask if you'd collected the whole Leake set, but he keeps adding to them.

Here's the reply to one of the early ones for the record:

Martin Vermeer said...

Try this one for size.

Anna Haynes said...


Is there a simple, semi-mechanized way to get name of the editor who's responsible for the piece as a whole (headline plus story)?

Also, folks: please try to provide more than just the URL ( title, author, date - or enough info that we can extract these) in case the link rots or goes behind a paywall.

I've got a homegrown javascript bookmarklet that pulls in a fair amt of the info, here - presumably there are other/better/equally lightweight ways to grab the info.
(and it doesn't do author or pubdate, alas)

Anna Haynes said...

Offtopic, confidential to MT:

I often want to grab the quotes you feature up by the In It masthead; but you change them frequently. If you were to stash the old ones on a page? post? somewhere as a collection, it would make me happy.

(yes, this is low priority; please don't take hi-pri time to do it.)

Michael Tobis said...

I collect the top-of-page quotes here, but I missed the first few.

Marion Delgado said...

I am a former reporter and editor (and producer) who moved to a news technical help and news web technician career.

But I can describe a typical headline process:

First an editor editor (managerial) reads the story for newsworthiness and the more abstract qualities, then a lower level copy editor, a rimmer, reads it for punctuation and spelling and grammar and (the paper's and, e.g., the AP) style mistakes, and reads the lead paragraph(s) and writes the headline.

The rules for headlines are fairly strict, and have to do with, among other things, the physical nature of printed pages. It shouldn't break badly, or be too long, it should be eye-catching and informative, it should be punchy, which is why so much word play that would be lame with more words allowed is used. On the other hand, overuse of cliched headlines is discouraged - so it ends up being a game like crosswords or sudoku.

Then a supervising editor of some sort will look over the final product. If the headline's egregious, it would probably be replaced, and moreso if it seems editorializing - there should be lots of reasons in the lead, at least, to back up any such thing.

So I think the issue would be with the approving editor finalizing the headlines. For web only news, arguably headlines should be just wonderful, if a little wordy, but the nature of attention and attention span takes the place of print limitations there, plus there are generations of habits that we don't want to let go of.

When I think of good and bad editors, I don't think of copy editors, I think of senior editors who made something reprintable out of a story I slapped together under deadline pressure, or gave me tips on where to take a story that made it better - headline writers, Michael, are almost never praised by the public - everyone loves to hate a headline.

As for the practical course, we could write and request a "clarification" that the headline xxx did not accurately reflect the sense of the yyy report of the zzz research.

The copy editors aren't paid their lowly salaries to be experts on what the yyy report was likely to say, so they get their info from the story, just like the readers do, and they're mentally already on the next story half-way by the time they write the headline.

Dol said...

I went to a talk by someone at the UK's Science Media Centre. He talked about the same weird headline phenomenon, resulting from someone else writing them.

An experiment was carried out: he cut the headline and first paragraph from a series of stories on the same topic, and asked colleagues to match the story with the paper. He made his point: it was hard or impossible to do. Story content hardly differs, it seems - but of course most people don't get that far, and the denialosphere in particular will still be resounding with the stupid headlines the Guardian added into the mix recently. I hang my head.