Headlines, and their discontents | Bleader

Headlines, and their discontents

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The best-read part of a newspaper story is its headline. That's enough to make some of us feel informed, others infuriated.

Take this headline the other day in the Tribune blog, the Swamp: "Will new Iraq turmoil reverse public support?"

Someone promptly responded: "'Will new Iraq turmoil reverse public support?' What public support??? 58% of the public says get out now. Enough already. End the occupation now!" 

A guy I know e-mailed me: "Every now and then, something turns me into a crank, and today it's Frank James posing the question in The Swamp "Will new Iraq turmoil reverse public support?" 

There's no room for nuance in a headline. Headlines tend to be categorical, even over stories written by reporters who were careful not to be. But when a headline overreaches, the reporter catches the blame. Another reader posted: "What public support are you referring to, James? That's a lie, and you're a liar, not a journalist."

Here's what James had written in the Swamp on March 27: "Even as President Bush tries to get the nation today to focus on progress that's been made in Iraq, the images coming out of Iraq in recent days are a stark counterpoint to his message. Many Americans won't be able to hear him because the images speak so loudly and don't bear much resemblance to progress."

These were images of fighting in Basra between government troops and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army. The government troops weren't making headway, and some were defecting to the other side.

And James, comparing the battle to the Tet offensive in 1968, which brought home to millions of Americans that the U.S. wasn't on the road to victory in Vietnam, remarked, "Whether the public's support for continued U.S. involvement in Iraq, which rose because of reports of progress related to to the U.S. military surge, will take a similar hit, remains to be seen."

I can't quarrel with that language. James wasn't saying most Americans support the war. But the level of public support has remained significant and did climb a little with the surge, and James was within his rights to wonder if it would survive the Basra debacle. Unfortunately for James, the context he offered in his article for his speculation came too late for the headline, which stood egregiously above and beyond it, blunt and misleading.

Another commenter wrote: "Chicago Tribune editors prove they are clearly out-of-touch with reality in posting such a headline. The majority of Americans do not support warmongering and empire building . . . in Iraq or anywhere else. The public resents the media propaganda that insinuates otherwise."

I sympathized with James and reflected on the way the sins of the copy desk are visited on the reporters. But wait --

Yes, James emailed me back. He wrote the headline too. 

"I understand the criticism," he went on, "and am still trying to figure out how I could've improved it. We just went to a new format which calls for even shorter headlines than the one that caused all the fuss so nuance will be even harder to come by."

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