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Another War-Related Headline Conundrum
Last week, I warned about overselling stories in headlines. This week is about underselling.
Hey everyone, Parker here.
I hope you all had a good weekend. If you’re the Halloween-celebrating type, happy Halloween! If you’re not, uh, happy almost-November!
For the second week in a row, I want to discuss headlines. No, it’s not a particularly interesting topic, but I think it’s essential for understanding how information travels and how the public understands fast-moving events like war. But first… the part where I ask you to please consider subscribing and/or upgrading your subscription if you enjoy the newsletter:
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If you were on social media yesterday, you may have seen clips of people storming a Russian airport.
Here’s CNN’s report, which includes some of those clips:
Today, I’ll be focusing on how the Associated Press covered the story initially, as well as how the story and its headline were updated as more details were learned and confirmed.
And just to put this out there: I don’t believe there’s a “right” or “wrong” answer to this, but I am curious what readers think the AP should have done with this story, especially when details were hard to pin down. Let me know in the comments.
The first version captured by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine:
And here was the text:
MOSCOW (AP) — Hundreds of people on Sunday stormed into the main airport in Russia’s Dagestan region and onto the landing field to protest the arrival of an airliner coming from Tel Aviv, Russian news agencies and social media reported.
Authorities closed the airport in Makhachkala, capital of the predominantly Muslim region, and police converged on the facility.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or arrests.
Russian news reports said people in the crowd were shouting antisemitic slogans and tried to storm the airliner belonging to Russian carrier Red Wings that had landed from Tel Aviv.
Video on social media showed some in the crowd on the landing field waving Palestinian flags.
In a statement released Sunday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Israel “expects the Russian law enforcement authorities to protect the safety of all Israeli citizens and Jews wherever they may be and to act resolutely against the rioters and against the wild incitement directed against Jews and Israelis.” Netanyahu’s office added that the Israeli ambassador to Russia was working with Russia to keep Israelis and Jews safe.
The next version of the story saved to the archive, updated at 4:15 p.m. CT:
Let’s review the changes. Aside from the updated headline, this version added the portion of this sentence I bolded here:
Video on social media showed some in the crowd on the landing field waving Palestinian flags, protesters attempting to overturn a police car and others checking the passports of passengers who had arrived in Makhachkala.
And also these paragraphs:
The Ministry of Internal Affairs for Russia’s North Caucasian Federal District, where Dagestan is located, stated that CCTV footage would be used to establish the identities of those who stormed the airport, and that those involved would be brought to justice.
While voicing support for Gaza, the regional Dagestani government appealed to citizens to remain calm and not take part in such protests.
“We urge residents of the republic to treat the current situation in the world with understanding. Federal authorities and international organizations are making every effort to bring about a ceasefire against Gaza civilians … we urge residents of the republic not to succumb to the provocations of destructive groups and not to create panic in society,” the Dagestani government wrote on Telegram.
The Supreme Mufti of Dagestan, Sheikh Akhmad Afandi, called on residents to stop the unrest at the airport.
“You are mistaken. This issue cannot be resolved in this way. We understand and perceive your indignation very painfully. ... We will solve this issue differently. Not with rallies, but appropriately. Maximum patience and calm for you,” he said in a video published to Telegram.
Dagestan Gov. Sergei Melikov was more assertive in his criticism of the protesters, and promised consequences for anyone who took part in the storming of the airport.
“The actions of those who gathered at the Makhachkala airport today are a gross violation of the law!... what happened at our airport is outrageous and should receive an appropriate assessment from law enforcement agencies! And this will definitely be done!” he wrote on Telegram.
He called the protests a “knife in the backs of those who gave their lives for the security of the Motherland,” referring to the 1999 war in Dagestan and troops currently fighting in Ukraine.
Russia’s civilian aviation agency, Rosaviatsia, later reported that the airfield had been cleared of unauthorized people, but that the airport would tentatively remain closed to incoming aircraft until Nov. 6.
And finally, the current (as of this writing) version of the story was updated on October 30th at 7:58 a.m. CT:
This version of the story is a near-complete rewrite of the original:
MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin called a meeting of security and law enforcement officials Monday, the day after a mob stormed the airport in the southern region of Dagestan after a flight from Israel landed there.
Hundreds of angry men, some carrying banners with antisemitic slogans, rushed onto the tarmac of the airport in Makhachkala, the capital of the predominantly Muslim region, on Sunday night, looking for Israeli passengers on the flight from Tel Aviv, according to Russian news reports.
More than 20 people were injured, with two in critical condition, Dagestan’s Health Ministry said. The injured included police officers and civilians, it said.
At least 60 people were detained in the unrest, the local Interior Ministry said. It was not clear if charges were filed against any of them, but Russia’s Investigative Committee said it opened a criminal probe on charges of organizing mass unrest.
Russia has issued carefully calibrated criticism of both sides in the war between Israel and Hamas, a conflict that is giving Moscow new opportunities to advance its role as a global power broker and challenge Western efforts to isolate it over Ukraine.
The crowd that rushed onto the tarmac Sunday night surrounded the jet belonging to the Russian carrier Red Wings with seemingly little resistance from the police, Russian news outlets reported.
Video and photos on social media showed some in the crowd waving Palestinian flags, and some trying to overturn a police car. Others held handwritten banners saying, “Child killers are not welcome in Dagestan” and “We’re against Jewish refugees.”
There also were shouts of “Allahu akbar!” or “God is great.”
Some in the crowd, which also was seen roaming the terminal, examined passports of arriving passengers, apparently in an attempt to identify those who were Israeli. The riot was later broken up.
The Makhachkala airport resumed operations at 2 p.m. Monday, Russia’s civil aviation authority Rosaviatsia said, adding that flights from Tel Aviv to Makhachkala and Mineralnye Vody, a city in the neighboring Stavropol region, will be redirected to other cities.
Russian carriers Red Wings and Azimut operate flights between Tel Aviv and the cities of Makhachkala, Mineralnye Vody and Sochi in southern Russia. All three cities are located about halfway between Tel Aviv and Moscow; Russian independent news site Mediazona quoted a passenger of the Tel Aviv-Makhachkala flight as saying that she was flying to Moscow and had a layover in Makhachkala, which was cheaper than a direct flight to the Russian capital.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the security meeting will discuss “attempts by the West to use the events in the Middle East to divide the (Russian) society.”
“It is well known and obvious that yesterday’s event around the Makhachkala airport is largely the result of outside interference, including information influence from outside,” he told reporters at his daily news conference. He did not elaborate.
Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti cited Dagestan Gov. Sergei Melikov as saying that the unrest was coordinated in a Telegram channel run by “traitors” based in Ukraine, with the goal of destabilizing Dagestan and fueling unrest.
According to Mediazona, local Telegram channels had said before the unrest that “refugees from Israel” were coming to Dagestan. Following some of those posts, a crowd gathered outside a hotel in the Dagestani city of Khasavyurt on Saturday, searching for Israeli nationals staying in the hotel, but left after not finding any, it said.
One such channel was founded by former Russian lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov, who currently lives in Ukraine and claims to be involved with a guerrilla movement inside Russia, Mediazona said. The Associated Press could not independently confirm the report. Ponomaryov has said he no longer has ties with the channel.
Following the Dagestan unrest, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Israel “expects the Russian law enforcement authorities to protect the safety of all Israeli citizens and Jews wherever they may be and to act resolutely against the rioters and against the wild incitement directed against Jews and Israelis.”
Netanyahu’s office added that the Israeli ambassador to Russia was working with Russia to keep Israelis and Jews safe.
While voicing support for Palestinians in Gaza, the regional Dagestani government appealed to citizens to remain calm and not take part in such protests. The Supreme Mufti of Dagestan, Sheikh Akhmad Afandi, also appealed for peace.
“We understand and perceive your indignation very painfully. ... We will solve this issue differently. Not with rallies, but appropriately. Maximum patience and calm for you,” he said in a video published to Telegram.
Melikov said there would be consequences for anyone taking part in the violence and wrote on Telegram that the scene at the airport was “outrageous and should receive an appropriate assessment from law enforcement agencies!”
When this was first posted, it was a developing story with just six short paragraphs and little available information.
When I started writing today’s newsletter, I hoped that I’d be able to use this to help people understand when and how the AP decided to make changes to the headlines. How did the AP land on “Crowd storms Russian airport to protest flight from Israel” as its initial headline? Was there a specific moment when the AP felt it had enough additional reporting and verification in place to feel comfortable changing the headline to “Hundreds storm airport in Russia in antisemitic riot over arrival of plane from Israel”?
Unfortunately, this, along with a link to the most recent version of the story, was the entirety of the response from the AP to my request for comment:
We updated our headline as we obtained more information and the situation became clearer.
Ah, well, nevertheless! On one hand, as I wrote last week, some big-name news organizations recently jumped to conclusions about a hospital bombing, resulting in some strong backlash. Here’s that article, by the way:
On the other hand, the original headline was a bit bizarre. How do you simultaneously say, with confidence, that the crowd stormed the airport while also calling it a protest, which seems to suggest at least some level of non-violence? And then, as is often a challenge when it comes to articles that get syndicated from organizations like the AP or Reuters: a lot of the articles that remain live on other websites simply don’t get updated if changes are made to the body or headline.
For instance, these were all stories that were still up this morning with the original headline:
And as I write this, at 2:10 p.m. CT on Monday, that is still the headline on Politico’s story (though the body has been updated).
So what do you think? Did the AP do the right thing by erring on the side of using language that was perhaps too soft at first, hoping to avoid the pitfalls of the hospital bombing story? Or do you think there was enough immediately evident chaos in the videos that were being used as the story’s basis to justify harsher language up front? And does the fact that some news organizations will continue to have outdated headlines up long after AP has edited them change your thinking?
As always, thanks so much for reading. Stay safe out there! Also, as I wrote a couple of years back, you probably don’t have to worry about drugs or razor blades in Halloween candy (but you should keep an eye out for cars if you’re trick or treating)!