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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.
Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

SYLVIA STEAD

Public Editor: This headline is not the full story Add to ...

They’re just a few words at the top of the articles, but headlines attract more than their share of complaints. Readers complain that they are too political or not political enough. They fail to tell the whole story, they miss the point of the story, or the tone is really off.

On Wednesday, I had a complaint about this headline: “Russia likely responsible for attack on aid convoy, U.S. says.” The reader complained that the word “likely” revealed speculation. I told him that The New York Times Service article said that Obama administration sources think there is a “high probability” the Russians were responsible. So the speculation is from government officials, not the headline writer – and I think the headline was accurate and fair.

But on this newspaper headline about the American election, other readers rightly complained it played way too straight and needed honesty, not the parroting of a lie: “Trump faults Clinton for birther debate.” The online headline was much better: “Trump concedes Obama born in U.S., falsely says Clinton started controversy.”

“Your headline to this article perpetuates the falsehood that the article then states is another false conspiracy. The media tend to highlight verbatim what [Donald] Trump says in headlines and only briefly denunciates what he’s doing later in articles. A better headline would have been: ‘Trump peddles another false conspiracy.’ ”

Yet another Trump headline attracted more criticism. The story about Donald Trump’s visit to a television taping said he “opened a small window into some of the results of his most recent medical examination, revealing he is overweight … ”

But the headline said: “Trump offers reasonably clean bill of health. Results of medical exam reveal Republican candidate slightly overweight.”

One reader wrote to ask “Was there a problem with your headline writer last night?” On the Trump headline she noted, “A doctor on a TV show asking for his self-reported medical history without doing a physical is NOT a medical exam … ”

In both these cases, the readers are correct that reporters and editors need to be critical and skeptical and not buy the spin and lies.

Writing headlines is tricky. They can draw you in, make you want to read more and sometimes make you smile. Here are a few good ones from the past few weeks: “Is your child a bully magnet?” or “How bad are the Jays? As bad as Donaldson’s mystery injury” or “The best, worst and most awkward moments of TIFF 2016” and finally “Chinese agents enter Canada on tourist visas to coerce return of fugitive expats.”

Headlines can never tell the full story, and often focus on one aspect. So to get a more complete picture, you really need to read on.

In this next case, the reader wanted to read on because he was so confused. Let’s see if it’s clear to you. “Active monitoring of prostate cancer does not increase death rate: study” Er, what? The reader kindly said that “presumably the writer meant that the choice of only doing active monitoring compared to active treatments did not increase the death rate [but] … The headline seems to mean that if we closely watch a man with prostate cancer he won’t die more quickly than if we ignore him.”

Another reader called this headline a missed opportunity. “Incomeless students spent $57-million on Vancouver houses in past two years” That, she said, might have been a story she didn’t read, but “then I saw it was NINE students. An entirely different story.” Here’s my suggested headline: “Nine students, with no incomes, spent $57-million on Vancouver houses.”

Here’s one case where the editor (they, not the reporters, write the headlines), in my opinion, missed the point: “Hunter Tootoo’s messy love triangle helped spur resignation from cabinet.” As a number of readers noted on Twitter, that headline minimizes and diminishes what happened – and they were right. The main issue was about a cabinet minister in a position of power in the workplace involved with a young employee, not the fact that he was also involved with another woman (the employee’s estranged mother).

Julie S. Lalonde, a social activist, tweeted an alternative headline: “Hunter Tootoo’s entitlement and abuse of power helped spur resignation from cabinet.”

His resignation wasn’t because he was involved in a “messy love triangle,” but because, according to sources, he admitted an inappropriate affair with one of his female staff. That should have been the focus of the headline in my view.

Here’s a recent video headline that also struck a nerve with another another reader: “Watch as chaos breaks out in Ohio court when victim’s dad lunges at killer.”

The reader called it “crass, exploitative and sensationalized. … ‘Watch as’ should be reserved for cute things, like peregrine falcons and cats.”

A U.S.-based journalism institute, Poynter, has studied how people read and absorb news on all platforms. Not surprisingly, they conclude that: “Dominant headlines most often draw the eye first upon entering the page.”

The test then is to make them clear and on message – because all eyes are on them.

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Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

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