Copy Editors Are The Most Influential Reporters of 2018
A piece a couple weeks ago on Politico had the title, "Pelosi, rebels discussing term limits for party leaders." It was about the divide in the Democratic Representatives, between Nancy Pelosi's presumed re-ascension to Speaker of the House, and the newly elected Freshman class, many of whom had campaigned on the idea of new blood in the leadership. A subject that was interesting and all, but I noticed it for a different, very specific reason: the term "rebels". After all, it's a very deliberate choice to use that word, a word that (excluding the headline) was used five separate times throughout the article. It evokes a specific connotation, perhaps one of a non-law abiding group, or one that may even resort to violence considering the most common 'rebels' in political discourse have been the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Even the verb or adjective forms, 'rebelling' and 'rebellious' respectively, would have been a less loaded way to go about it, seeing as the group being described had never once referred to themselves as 'rebels'.
The best kind of advertising is when you don't know you're being advertised to. And to the average person trying to keep up with the day's news, these distinctions are incredibly important to how they form their initial perception of "ringleader" Seth Moulton and company. It frames Pelosi as the one in the right, which may or may not be true, but it should be something for the reader to decide upon. And in a world where we are too busy (or think we are too busy) to sit through a full 1000-word news story, these headlines have become the entire story.
[Sidenote: For what it's worth, I'm not sure that strict term limits for party leaders is necessarily the way to go. Earlier this year in a piece about large-scale reforms to the structure of the federal government, I advocated for general Congressional term limits, but I gave a number that was lengthy but not inconceivably long – 24 years for representatives, and 30 for senators. This would have only kicked in for six current senators (Patrick Leahy, Orrin Hatch, Thad Cochran, Chuck Grassley, Mitch McConnell, and Richard Shelby), sixteen current representatives (including Nancy Pelosi and John Lewis), and fourteen former members of Congress (including John McCain if he had run again), so it's not like this would have dramatically changed the course of the United States. Considering you are eligible for the House at 25, and you get 54 combined years of eligibility, you'd be 79 if you played it out. So it's only there to stop the worst offenders. So maybe they are rebels. Back to the headlines.]
Further exacerbated by sharing mechanisms in social media that only display the headline and (sometimes) the first few words, the problem of headlines plagues those across the political spectrum. Regarding the subject of the border wall, the top headlines on a few big news sites were as follows.
Trump says [Dems] focused on 'Presidential Harassment'
Gorka: Dems only care about 'power'
New York Times
Trump Blames Democrats Over Deaths of Migrant Children in U.S. Custody
Kelly Says Idea of Concrete Wall Was Abandoned Long Ago
Border chief: Agents 'did everything they could' to prevent child migrants' deaths
Conway: Border wall debate 'a silly semantic argument'
More health exams instituted for migrant children at border
Trump blames deaths of migrant children on Democrats
Trump compares border wall to 'Wall around' Obama home
In the case of FOX News, a notably conservative outlet, the intended bias is at the surface. By having two headlines that contain quotes blaming Democrats, it's obvious that FOX News wants its average reader to do the same. But in outlets that lean (or are reputed as leaning) further to the left, we encounter the same problem. The New York Times does effectively the same thing, saying that 'Trump Blames Democrats', a lead-in which could have readers come into the piece thinking that Democrats are indeed to be blamed. Even the NBC headline is a wasted effort, as it leads you to believe that those two things may indeed be equivalent, though they are definitely not.
The colon is a clever tool that headline writers (most commonly copy editors at larger publications) can use to imbue an otherwise absent sentiment into a headline. FOX's Gorka headline, as you might expect, is a counterexample – the only quoted word "power" is in-context, seeing as the full quote was "They care about power, and they are obsessed." In CNN's case, however, a headline reads "Departing senators warn: There's a problem with the current state of politics," which is weird because none of the three senators quoted used the word "problem," "current," or "state", and only one of them using the word "politics." Inherently, trying to summarize quotes from multiple people will require some freestyling on the writer's part, something to be avoided in pure reporting. The headline could have read, "McCaskill, Hatch, Flake critical of Senate in farewell," a statement that is objectively true according to the words they said.
There's a clear difference between a headline that has "Trump:" (with a colon) and "Trump (insert verb here)", because the latter requires the writers to come up with a word that they believe encapsulates the situation, introducing the possibility of personal bias. Something like 'Trump blames' or 'Trump tweets' gives the story a different tone than say, 'Trump fights'.
CNN's top headline as of 7:00PM last night showcased the apparent feud between soon-to-be former Senator Claire McCaskill and incoming representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a headline reading "The outgoing senator called her a 'shiny object' and a 'thing.' Ocasio-Cortez says she's disappointed." From that bit alone, your imagination may stray to a Mean Girls-esque flame war, but in reality it's even tamer than that. McCaskill, currently on a weird media blitz as she nears the end of her term (following a lost re-election bid), directed criticism in a number of directions, including at her opponent Josh Hawley whom she also called a "bright shining object". Coincidentally, that was the exact phrase with which McCaskill described Ocasio-Cortez, going on to express her confusion as to why she was currently "the thing" – something that isn't particularly clarified in the headline. Surely you could chalk it up to a grammatical choice, the difference between calling someone "a thing" vs. "the thing", but that difference matters; one implies objectification while the other suggests popularity. A later top headline read "Ocasio-Cortez fires back at McCaskill," another seemingly sensationalist bit for what was ultimately a pretty civil tweet.
Ultimately, these specific stories (and headlines) won't matter. McCaskill will fade into irrelevance (or possibly a high-paying consultant gig), and these remarks will be relegated to a footnote into the chapter of Ocasio-Cortez's steady rise through the Democratic party. For what it's worth, the full story linked by the first headline didn't even include Ocasio-Cortez's response that supposedly expressed disappointment, even though the headline finished on that exact subject.
This is not an unsolvable problem, a fact which becomes clear when the above headlines are juxtaposed with Tweets like the one from @NYTimes earlier this week, which read "Gov. Andrew Cuomo was against the legalization of marijuana – until he was for it. The "facts have changed," he now says, meaning really that the polling has changed." It's a quote from a larger story titled "Legalized Pot Isn't Going to Save Us" (which is also a weird headline), but one that serves as an immediate fact check to a misleading claim. You can argue about things like spacing and wordiness when making headlines truly objective or fact-checky, but those are problems we left in the past with the constraints of actual printed newspapers. In the realm of digital journalism, that excuse won't fly.
This is an altogether different problem from something like normalization – something that can be seen in a New York Times piece from two months ago titled "Proud Boys Founder: How He Went From Brooklyn Hipster to Far-Right Provocateur" which does its best to normalize neo-Nazis. For a piece like that, you can argue with the intent, but it's likely a crime of omission rather than misrepresentation. There may have been a hand-wavy attitude when dealing with the very serious and real implications of associating with neo-Nazis (something that should definitely be addressed), but it doesn't perpetuate a lie within the headline itself considering that features stray somewhat far into opinion journalism (a puff piece vs. a hit piece). Contrast that with something like "Wisconsin Republicans Defiantly 'Stand Like 'Bedrock' in Face of Democratic Wins" which is a generous way to characterize a naked (and undemocratic) power grab. The 'stand like bedrock' bit was a direct quote, but one that was hardly worth including, and definitely not next to a steadfast word like 'defiant.' Interestingly, the headline was later changed to "Wisconsin Republicans Defiantly Move to Limit the Power of Incoming Democrats," which is definitely more factual, but still has that problematic 'defiant' bit in there (tracking this is only possible with the help of sites like NewsDiffs, which exist for this exact purpose). The BBC's coverage of that same story was starkly different, instead suggesting that "Wisconsin Republicans seek to hobble newly elected Democrat," avoiding loaded words ('hobble' is fairly tame) and simply providing a statement of fact.
The nature of headline saturation could be fundamentally altered by a potential law that didn't intend to address this problem at all – the European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD). Article 11 of the EUCD is known as the 'link tax' (perhaps better referred to as a 'snippet tax'), and would give publishers the right to charge aggregators for posting portions of their stories. For example, when you include a link as part of a Facebook or Twitter post, a snippet containing the headline and header image will be automatically generated. The EUCD would remove this functionality, the rationale being that most people won't bother clicking through after reading the headline, and as such the original publisher is losing advertising revenue since there are fewer people actually surfing their website in favor of a Reddit-like aggregator (note that you could still post the link, but you just wouldn't get that snippet, which is why the term 'link tax' is somewhat erroneous). While such a restriction likely wouldn't be enough to combat the average person's laziness to read an entire story, it would at least hinder the propagation of biased information.
While purposeful and intentional misinformation is unfortunately on the rise, it's critical to be confident in the integrity of the news we receive from publications that we do actually trust. Though news outlets likely never intended for their content to be consumed in Tweet-length pieces, it's an adjustment they must nevertheless make if they truly hope to carry out the mission they were founded upon.