Thursday, January 19, 2006

Headlines matter

On January 12, 2006 The Capital Journal published a story written by Hal Lockard about Topeka mayor Bill Bunten's letter to the mayor of Buckhannon, WV.

The background to this story is that following the deaths of 12 miners in that area, Westboro Baptist Church Minister, Fred Phelps announced his intention to bring a group to picket the memorial service that community had planned.

The story ran under the headline, "Mayor sends note of apology to W.Va." (registration required)
Now to me, the word "apology" has a fairly specific meaning, and frankly, in this context I found the headline quite provocative. As a resident of Topeka, while I view the behavior of Phelps as a noxious blot on our civic landscape and his ventures outside of our community never fail to provide poor public relations for our city. But I'm not responsible for his existance or his behavior and neither is my city. I do not apologize for him and I don't want my mayor apologizing on my behalf.

The headline takes me into the story with a chip on my shoulder. Reading the story, only one, brief quote from the letter is provided:
"Please understand they are not representative of our community and we disavow in the strongest possible terms the hatred they espouse and their abominable activities in the picketing of funerals."
Mr. Lockard also provided several interview quotes from Mayor Bunten about the letter:
"It's not a policy. It's more a public relations thing," Bunten said.

"I talked to the governor's staff and told them I was concerned about what might happen, and gave them a heads up," he said. "We don't want them saying Topeka is Westboro Baptist Church."

So after reading the article, that's everything we know about the content of the letter and mayor's intent.

Do you see an apology? Me either. There is a major disconnect between the headline and the story that follows.

This is bad journalism. But lets be clear, there is nothing wrong with Mr. Lockard's work. This got botched at the copy desk.

Here's how it typically works...

The newspaper receives a copy of the letter from the mayor's office. An assignment editor puts a reporter on task to write a piece about it, perhaps giving some guidance about what is envisioned. The reporter reports and writes the story and submits it for editing. The editor reads it and and edits it as necessary and passes it along to the copy desk.

To this point the process worked. Here's where it broke down...

The copy desk is charged with a variety of responsibilities. They are the last line of defense when it comes to accuracy, spelling and grammar. They put together page layout and as such, often have to edit stories for 'fit the hole,' as it were. This can be done with or without the input of the reporter or editor. It's possible that content that supports the headline could be lost at this stage. The copy editor also almost always writes the headline. If the copy editor changes the story, there is no excuse for a disagreement between the 'hed' and the 'copy.'

When writing a headline, several purposes must be served. The headline's purpose is to entice a reader to begin reading the story. A headline must accurately reflect the copy. A headline is subject to physical space constraints. The challenge is to write a headline that advertises the story well while being accurate and fitting the space.

Endeavoring to find out, I spoke with Mr. Lockard and as suspected, he not only didn't write the headline, he hadn't seen it at the time of our conversation. Nothing substantial was cut from the article for space. Ipso facto, the headline is crap. Mystery solved.

All that remains is the question of whether or not the mayor did indeed apologize. Is it possible that Mr. Lockard simply didn't write about that aspect of the letter and that the copy editor knew things about it that were not reported? Yes, it's possible. It's exceedingly unlikely though. And in any case, this would in no way explain the disconnect.

I obtained the letter:

click to enlarge

There is no apology. Yeah, the Mayor is embarrassed on my behalf and he needn't be. He's expressing condolences for the communities loss and offering them information that will help them cope with the presence of the Phelps klan.

The point of discussing this is not that this example is a particular outrage. It's a good object illustration. This breakdown happens often. The simple fact that the hed and the copy disagree is a problem. After reading the article, I had no idea which was wrong. I was worse than uninformed, I now knew I didn't know things I needed to know...and that the paper wasn't telling me. This is a failure.



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