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Sandra Martin, standards editor for The Globe and Mail.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Lately I’ve been fielding quite a few e-mails about headlines. Some readers use the “report an error” link that appears at the bottom of every article to flag spelling, usage or grammar gaffes. Those are easy to validate and fix online.

Others are more complicated. For example, on Aug. 18, we published a Canadian Press wire story about how Meta’s response to Bill C-18 affects the dissemination of emergency information to Northwest Territories residents affected by dangerous wildfires. We added a headline that originally read: “Residents in Northwest Territories deprived of information during emergency as Meta blocks news links.” A reader submitted a report voicing concerns of bias on The Globe and Mail’s part as a media organization affected by Meta’s response to the bill, pointing in particular to the use of the word “deprived.”

Upon receipt of an error report, the standards editor’s first order of business is to assess whether the reader is correct. As the reader pointed out, there was no news blackout, as the word “deprived” might imply; updates were still available by navigating directly to news websites.

The article itself also reported that the decline of local news sources presented another challenge to Canadians affected by the emergency, something The Globe’s original headline did not acknowledge. After a discussion, the team updated the headline to read, as it does now, “Lack of local media, Meta’s news block impact Northwest Territories residents’ access to information.”

By now, you’re likely wondering how the disconnect between a story and its headline can happen. To understand that, it helps to understand newsroom process. Reporters and their assignment editors are the staffers who understand the story most intimately, but they rarely write headlines. There are practical reasons for this. For the print edition, there will be a specific amount of space available for the hed (as newsfolk often refer to the headline – see how we’re always finding ways to use the fewest characters possible?). So it makes sense for an editor who’s involved with the layout of that page to write it. But this also presents challenges.

“Headlines are far too often written last – often quickly and under deadline pressure,” said retired American journalism professor Merlin Mann. Regardless of that pressure, he says, headlines must be correct, both in content and in their implication. Plus, they have to be interesting enough to grab readers’ attention, must be easy to understand and should match the tone of the articles they accompany.

“The headline is a promise of content – and is therefore not to be taken lightly,” said Angela Misri, an assistant professor of journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University and a former digital director at The Walrus magazine. “And trust is something hard to establish and even harder to regain if a news organization drags someone’s attention to a story through a less-than-truthful headline.”

That’s a heavy load for just a few words to carry, and it can be even more challenging for editors tasked with writing headlines for digital news platforms. Search engines hold the keys to reader discovery, and their algorithms mean the most trustworthy and deeply reported takes are not necessarily the ones that show up first in search results. On top of everything else a good headline is supposed to do in print, digital headlines must also include search engine optimization (SEO) elements such as words and phrases that match those readers use in their search for information.

Ironically, the same SEO “best practices” that strive to ensure people get a chance to read the news coverage we work so hard to offer can compromise accuracy.

“Sometimes we get a little too obsessed with the SEO tags getting into the headline and that can push aside the actual content you are trying to get attention for,” Ms. Misri said.

Online competition can sometimes lead headline writers to use “shady” tactics, observes Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, a U.S.-headquartered non-profit that provides training for journalists around the world. An example of this might be a headline that asks a provocative question that isn’t answered in the story or to which the answer isn’t nearly as titillating as the headline implied.

But, she adds, the blame for weak or inaccurate headlines doesn’t always fall to frazzled headline writers. Sometimes weak stories are the problem. How do you write an exciting seven-word summary of an article with an unclear premise? She says newsrooms need to look at why stories like these are making it to publication.

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