"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

More for the Misleading Headline FIle

OK, here's a random article in a random magazine, journal, newspaper, blog, what have you. What do you read first? The title. The title helps you decide whether to look at the abstract or the leading paragraph, then perhaps glance at the conclusion, then perhaps skim the article, then maybe to blog about it or refer to it, and finally maybe even in some rare eventuality actually read it carefully and attentively.

So the title is the most important thing. In science, and in blogging, we control the title of our work. In writing for conventional press, we don't. Irene and I didn't even choose the title for our first book, whose title is in fact misleading! (It's flawed for a number of reasons but not without value, and is now available in a Kindle edition! Recommended for academics, especially tenure track.) (Maybe I shouldn't flog the Kindle edition; I probably get not a red cent from it. Buy the paperback new!)

But most editors cannot realistically read every article they edit carefully and attentively. So they title them wrong. This is a common problem:
So now Steve Easterbrook has run into this buzz-saw, with a not-too-bad article on the Guardian accompanied by a totally off-base headline: “Climate scientists should not write their own software, says researcher". Steve naturally is inclined to criticize the author, Danny Bradbury.

Different institutions have different madnesses. It is almost impossible for an academic to even suspect, never mind believe, that the title of an article is written by somebody who not only didn't write the article but in practice hasn't really read it. That's normal!

We needn't attribute sinister motivations. Headlines reveal the mindset of the editor, but are not intended to mislead. They are revealing the extent to which the editor is already informed or confused. That is, they reveal the extent to which the publication is competent on the issue at hand, or the extent to which the obfuscators have already succeeded in their obfuscations there. The intent, though, is to rush product out the door with limited resources, not deliberately to confuse.

We needn't cure all the ills that ail journalism to fix this. The cure is mind-bogglingly straightforward.

Let the person who wrote the piece write the headline!


Update: Anna in comments provides this amazing link on headline writing.


Steve Bloom said...

It's worth mentioning that if there's a print edition involved there's a need to consider layout issues. Usually this includes fitting the headline into a limited space that's been set aside for it before it's been written.

Michael Tobis said...

Yeah, I thought of that, but that's an excuse, not a justification.

If the headline is too long, the editor can ask for a shorter one, or use a smaller font, or allocate more space.

I'd rather have a half inch gap on my front page (if I still looked at dailies in paper form, which really I don't) than a misleading headline anyway.

Steve Scolnik said...

You want accuracy? Them's cain't spel nor uz gramma, neether. Actual front-page headline in the WaPo recently:
"For Pakistanis, the worse may be still to come."
Even the ombudsman was appalled.

Tom said...

Weren't you able to set your own prie and royalty on Kindle? Mosh and I did.

Deech56 said...

Michael, it looks like the opening paragraph is wrong as well (see comments section - comment by Steve E.). The article author seems to have misread the paper. Link

Michael Tobis said...

The book was written in '01. We just wanted to see our names at a major publishing company, even though it's definitely not an A-list series.

Deech56 said...

Michael, it looks like the opening paragraph is wrong as well (see comments section - comment by Steve E.). The article author seems to have misread the paper. Link

(Hope this is not a duplicate - something went haywire.)

Gareth said...

In traditional media, headlines are written by subs (sub-editors). Subs are the most important people on any newspaper/magazine because they edit the text supplied by the writer (to fit style, space) and write/decide headlines/standfirsts/pullquotes etc. You can be a great writer and have no idea about good headlines. My co-blogger Bryan writes damn good prose, but couldn't provide a catchy title for his posts to save his life...
So... you should always check your headline back with the writer, to make sure you haven't got it wrong. Or not, if you want to spin something like yesterday's Daily Express front page: Climate change lies are exposed or Sun: UN 'lacks solid evidence' in climate warnings. The British tabloids are an object lesson in many things...

John Mashey said...

This problem is not reserved for climate. I once (temporarily) helped my company lose a lot of market cap, due to a bad headline with no malice or even terrible incompetence.
See The MIPS stock glitch.

Anna Haynes said...

> "Headlines reveal the mindset of the editor, but are not intended to mislead."

It depends on the copy editor, doesn't it? (the intent, I mean)

Misc on headlines -

"On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy."

"Headline writers-typically copy editors-have an obligation to give readers the most accurate sense possible of an article's conclusions...They're frequently failing."

The journalist's-eye view - with a do-it-yourself exercise, to instill humility - is here:


Deech56 said...

Michael, check the latest comments at Serendipity. The author himself wrote the headline, realizes he goofed and is trying to make amends. Kinda refreshing.

Unknown said...

As I already wrote as a comment on Stoat in March, a paper of my colleague on Arctic sea ice was reported like this:

The original paper: M. Ogi, K. Yamazaki, and J.M. Wallace, 2010: Influence of winter and summer surface wind anomalies on summer Arctic sea ice extent. Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L07701. (No. 13 as listed here).

Nature (research highlights, 18 March 2010): Geoscience: Wind-blown ice. (Nature's short headlines are like riddles, and I do not want to comment on this. I just include it for its content which the journalists probably read.)

Guardian (David Adam, 22 March): Wind contributing to Arctic sea ice loss, study finds. (Fair headline.)

Telegraph (Geoffrey Lean): Good news as research suggests global warming does not directly cause all the melting of Arctic ice. (This is a commentary in a blog, and the headline shows what the commentator thought rather than what the paper said.)

Daily Mail: Arctic winds and not global warming 'responsible for much of record loss of sea ice'. (Misleading.)

Fox News: Winds, Not Warming, Leading to Arctic Ice Melt. (False.)

Padraig Tomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vinny Burgoo said...

More nutty headlines:

'World will warm faster than predicted in next five years, study warns' (Guardian; the study actually said the warming was bang on track)

'Study Links Tree Rings to Global Warming' (AP; those pesky trees!)

'Pollution creating acid oceans' (Telegraph)