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David Johnson

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Responsible Headlines

Posted: 04/11/2012 2:05 pm

There's no shortage of pontification on how to do journalism online as the news media grapples with shifting audiences and new competition for attention. We can discuss how headlines need to grab attention to draw page views that drive a news company's bottom line, but we should also discuss how headlines as haiku must be clear, truthful and accurate -- all by themselves.

With Twitter's 140-character limit and the lower-third text of the broadcast or cable news program often seen only in that format, without the sound turned on or the click-through to the article, the short burst of text is a very powerful piece of messaging. In the instance of this story in the Washington Post, it appears to be broadcasting a think tank message, without any other context, to millions of possible viewers.

The headline on Lori Montgomery's story: "Health-care law will add $340 billion to deficit, new study finds" is a classic example of a print headline, one that has been used, tried-and-true, in journo-thinking for decades. It credits the statement about adding billions to the deficit to the study, which is outlined in the accompanying article. Here's the lede of that piece:

President Obama's landmark health-care initiative, long touted as a means to control costs, will actually add more than $340 billion to the nation's budget woes over the next decade, according to a new study by a Republican member of the board that oversees Medicare financing.
The piece is sourced primarily with quotes from the author of the survey, Charles Blahous, and balanced by an anonymous White House official -- not uncommon for the Post, who uses anonymous sources perhaps more than any other daily news publication. We don't learn that Blahous works with the Mercatus Center, which is funded by the Koch brothers, until the fourth paragraph.

Liberals countered the survey almost immediately. The Center for American Progress had a post on their Think Progress blog that offered a far more factual piece than the one in the Washington Post, and also explained in detail how the numbers were reached and why the Center feels the study isn't valid. The ThinkProgress post quotes and links to Montgomery's article, which seems to obfuscate the actuality of the situation by comparison.

But it didn't take long for more sources to weigh in. Paul Krugman called the study a "Bogus Attack on Health Reform" in the New York Times, and pulled in an explainer from Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine that lays it out in simpler terms.

But none of this appears in the Washington Post story, which is probably factually true and reported in a timely fashion. And all these sources are out there to continue the news conversation, right?

Except the headline is what does the damage, and the damage is to confuse the public about what is really going on in the government battle over the Affordable Health Care Act. With headlines such as these to inform the public, is it any wonder that surveys -- of dubious sampling methodology -- can show that any percentage of voters are outraged (or any other word you care to insert) about "Obamacare."

Journalists have said for a while that the conservative Koch brothers have been successfully operating a strategy to fund think tanks and centers who create studies to legitimize and re-enforce their particular point of view. Journalists admire and award the investigative work that reveals such back-room political maneuvering.

But that doesn't seem to stop editors and reporters from publishing stories and headlines that don't transmit that information to the public readership. The conventional wisdom espoused by the journalism profession as it faces the challenge of online media and social media is that traditional journalism gives weight and credence to the information it passes along, investing the stories or tweets with credibility.

When the Post reports that "a study" says that health care adds billions to the nation's "woes," the public is justified in believing that the Post believes it to be true. This act of journalism is the equivalent of putting the whole of the Post's reputation and legacy into this headline. Without a story or without any other context, the Post seems to be endorsing this study in this headline. And it turns out the study is a ruse, designed to confuse the public on this issue.

The headline just amplifies a talking point, and legitimizes it as real -- when it really isn't real at all. Yes, the headline is true, but that doesn't make the person who sees it or repeats it any better informed of the reality of Washington and politics and this critical issue. And in no way is that journalistically responsible or ethically justified.


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