Opinion: Media Mangle

Headline hanky panky

Headlines too often imply the opposite of a story‘s facts

Every editor knows the importance of a headline. Ideally, you want that hurried reader to be enticed to read the story because of the headline. Failing that, you want the reader, as he bolts to his car slurping his coffee and holding his paper in the other hand, to at least get the essence of the story from the headline.

But there are other purposes for headlines in this new age of journalism, not the least of which is to give the reader the exact opposite impression of the facts, especially when the editor is running interference for a Democratic president. That’s what happened this morning in The News & Observer of Raleigh.

Here is the headline on page 3A, the Nation & World section: “Obama’s call for openness widely ignored.”

What is it that the reader, hurrying out the door and unable to read the entire story, takes away from this? Logically, he would think that the President’s valiant efforts to make government more open to the American people are being obstructed by others, probably Republicans. Obama is on OUR side, the headline says.

But what does the story say? Here’s the lede:

WASHINGTON — One year into its promise of greater government transparency, the Obama administration is more often citing exceptions to the nation’s open records law to withhold federal records even as the number of requests for information declines, according to a review by The Associated Press of agency audits about the Freedom of Information Act.

Now that’s quite different. It’s the Obama administration itself that is not living up to its promises of more transparency. To be fair to the headline writer, he or she took the “widely ignored” line from a paragraph further down in the story:

Obama’s directive, memorialized in written instructions from the Justice Department, appears to have been widely ignored.

Unable to let Obama off the hook in the lede, the AP writer put this paragraph helpfully into the story to allow the “Obama is victim” meme to play out in any way it might on the copy desks of America, and the N&O headline writer took advantage of that opening. The AP and the N&O are asking the reader to believe that the appointees of the President of the United States are ignoring the orders and directives of the most powerful individual in the world.

Interestingly, the online version of the story has a very different, and much more accurate, headline: “PROMISES, PROMISES: Records not so open with Obama.” As the AP report notes further down in the story, the number of Freedom of Information exceptions sought by Obama has increased more than 60 percent over the last year of the Bush administration. I’d have fought for that in the lede. After all, that’s what “is more often citing exceptions” in the lede refers to. But that’s just me.

I’m guessing this headline on the MyWay news site’s version of the story was the one shipped by AP to its members: “PROMISES, PROMISES: Is gov’t more open with Obama?”

It has the helpful question mark at the end, a way to let Obama off the hook, a key goal for The Associated Press, judging from its performance over the past two years. And MyWay is a news aggregator that posts stories automatically, untouched by human hands, so the headline likely wasn’t changed from the AP original.

This means that whoever puts news on the N&O’s Web site wrote the best and most accurate headline. Give that editor a pat on the back.

Jon Ham is vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of its newspaper, Carolina Journal.