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Why Headlines Matter

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Headlined to H3 3/21/09

opednews.com

The Society of Professional Journalists Code Of Ethics suggests that establishing "good faith with the public is the foundation of all worthy journalism." With regard to accuracy and objectivity, the Code states in part: "Newspaper headlines should be fully warranted by the contents of the articles they accompany."
    
There are two problems with this seemingly self-evident proposition. First, newspaper headlines are generally written, not by the reporters most familiar with the details of the story, but by editors. Second, those editors are cognizant of a responsibility to attract readers and may therefore succumb to temptations to embellish or slightly misrepresent headlines. Sometimes those overstepped headlines are inadvertent; other times, likely not.

Headlines that promise more than a story delivers are problematic. Most readers will read only the headlines of at least some stories and even readers that read an entire story may subsequently remember only a fact or several facts which stand out--often those contained in headlines.

An example of a misleading headline is the following from Thursday's Washington Examiner: "Study: Child porn possessors likely abusers." Disregarding possible methodological flaws in the study upon which the news article is based, the Examiner headline is troubling nevertheless because it makes a connection not warranted by the facts of the story.

The study was not a broad-based analysis of individuals who possess child pornography. It was, rather, a study of a specific sub-group of individuals.

The researchers, whose study was published in the Journal of Family Violence in December, had interviewed 155 inmates convicted of child pornography and found that roughly 85 percent of them had molested children, even though most of them had no known history of child abuse. Critically, the small sample study was based upon inmates--those individuals likely to have been the most serious Internet offenders.

A related problem was first reported in a New York Times news story about the study (at that time still unpublished) in July 2007. The Times wrote that the findings, based on prisoners serving time who volunteered for the study, "do not necessarily apply to the large and diverse group of adults who have at some point downloaded child pornography, and whose behavior is far too variable to be captured by a single survey." Even the researchers cautioned that offenders who volunteer for treatment may differ in their behavior from those who do not seek treatment, though that information was not reported in the Examiner news story.

Headlines cannot always paint a complete news picture. Sometimes it will be nearly impossible to effectively represent a story's nuances within a headline. In the case of the Examiner headline, however, a single qualifier would have brought it in line with SPJ's ethical admonitions, that headlines be warranted by the stories accompanying them. An editor should have modified the headline. For example she might have written:
"Study: Convicted child porn possessors likely abusers" or "Incarcerated porn possessors likely to abuse according to study".

By painting the study's headline with too broad a brush, the Examiner promised readers more than it delivered and failed in its journalistic duty to maintain good faith with the public.

    

    

    

 

Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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