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The New York Times Needs to Do Something About Its Headlines
Once again, I beg of news organizations: write your headlines, tweets, and push notifications as though they're the only things most people will see — they often are.
Hello, dear readers. Parker here.
Today’s newsletter is about one of the topics I’ve been going on about for years: the sociopolitical effects of newspaper headlines. I promise I’ll try to keep it interesting. Before we get started, here’s where I ask you to please consider subscribing if you’re not yet signed up (and if you’re feeling particularly generous, consider upgrading your subscription from free to paid if you enjoy my work):
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Yesterday, the New York Times published a rare editors’ note in response to criticism over its coverage of the explosion at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza on October 17. For those who can’t get past the paywall, here it is, in full:
On Oct. 17, The New York Times published news of an explosion at a hospital in Gaza City, leading its coverage with claims by Hamas government officials that an Israeli airstrike was the cause and that hundreds of people were dead or injured. The report included a large headline at the top of The Times’s website.
Israel subsequently denied being at fault and blamed an errant rocket launch by the Palestinian faction group Islamic Jihad, which has in turn denied responsibility. American and other international officials have said their evidence indicates that the rocket came from Palestinian fighter positions.
The Times’s initial accounts attributed the claim of Israeli responsibility to Palestinian officials, and noted that the Israeli military said it was investigating the blast. However, the early versions of the coverage — and the prominence it received in a headline, news alert and social media channels — relied too heavily on claims by Hamas, and did not make clear that those claims could not immediately be verified. The report left readers with an incorrect impression about what was known and how credible the account was.
The Times continued to update its coverage as more information became available, reporting the disputed claims of responsibility and noting that the death toll might be lower than initially reported. Within two hours, the headline and other text at the top of the website reflected the scope of the explosion and the dispute over responsibility.
Given the sensitive nature of the news during a widening conflict, and the prominent promotion it received, Times editors should have taken more care with the initial presentation, and been more explicit about what information could be verified. Newsroom leaders continue to examine procedures around the biggest breaking news events — including for the use of the largest headlines in the digital report — to determine what additional safeguards may be warranted.
For reference, here’s how the story appeared on the front page of nytimes.com on the 17th and on the front page of the paper on the 18th:
As explained in the editors’ note, the Times got a lot of criticism for this framing, and rightly so.
The actual content of the articles was mostly fine. The issues people understandably had was with the headlines. Of course, the Times wasn’t alone in writing less-than-perfect headlines; it’s just that when the Times makes a mistake, that becomes a story in itself. But let’s go through what was wrong with these.
Let’s start with the online version of the article: “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say.”
This one is pretty obvious. The source, whom the Times identifies as simply “Palestinians” in the headline, makes three factual claims that the Times printed: 1. Who did it? (“Israeli”) 2. What did they do? (“Strike Kills Hundreds”) 3. Where did it happen? (“in Hospital”)
To make things more confusing, the image on the site's front page was not the hospital in question (which was in northern Gaza), but a street shot from Khan Younis, a city to the south. Yes, this is apparent if you read the caption, but we’re going to work on the assumption that most people are skimming the page, at best.
The print version, “Blast Kills Hundreds at Gaza Hospital,” is better, if still flawed.
The headline is a simple, unattributed statement of fact: a blast killed hundreds of people in a Gaza hospital. It didn’t assign blame or privilege the claims of one side over the other. Additionally, the photo matches the story. Great.
The problem, still, is in the claim. Yes, there was an explosion at the hospital, so “blast” and “in a Gaza hospital” are acceptable. There is footage of the explosion and photos from after the fact. This headline still struggles with the claim that hundreds (i.e., at least 200) of people died. An article on Page 8 from October 20 shows that while this may still be the case, the death toll is not yet a known quantity.
To give credit where it’s due, “U.S. Officials Tentatively Estimate Death Toll in Hospital Explosion at 100 to 300” is a decent headline. It leads with the group making a claim (“U.S. Officials”), qualifies it (“Tentatively Estimate”), and then lets you know what the claim is (“Death Toll in Hospital Explosion at 100 to 300”).
Now, you could ask if it matters that the Times unequivocally used “hundreds” when the actual death toll may be less than that (or may very well, yes, be in the hundreds), and I’d say the answer for readers is probably “not really.” For the Times, it absolutely matters. Journalism is about telling people what is known. If something has not been established as a fact, it should be adequately qualified in a way that makes clear to readers of the headline the level of uncertainty that still exists.
Reporters and news organizations should write headlines, tweets, and push notifications as though they’re the only part of a story people will see. Often, they are.
That was the key takeaway from a 2019 article I wrote for Media Matters (“Everyone knows headlines are broken. Here's how news organizations can start fixing them.”) My co-author Beth Cope and I interviewed a number of journalists, media ethicists, and other news professionals for the piece in hopes of solving the headline problem.
The piece resulted from my frustration with newspapers that ran Donald Trump’s claims without any level of skepticism in the headline. For instance, just weeks before the 2018 midterms, Trump told reporters that he and Republican members of Congress were working “around the clock” on finalizing “a major tax cut” for middle-class earners. Here’s how the Washington Post framed its article on the topic:
The first sentence of the story clears this up slightly (bolded emphasis mine):
President Trump said Saturday that Republicans are planning to implement a “very major tax cut” for middle-income earners before next month, even though Congress is out of session until after November’s midterm elections.
And a few paragraphs in (again, bolded emphasis mine):
It was not precisely clear what Trump was referring to, and the White House did not immediately respond to a request for clarification. One official familiar with the discussions said Trump has pushed congressional leaders to introduce another tax cut package before the Nov. 6 election.
But that appears highly unlikely, as lawmakers are out of Washington, and there are no plans for either chamber to reconvene before their regularly scheduled return on Nov. 13.
Add to this the fact that Republican members of the House had no clue what Trump was talking about, and you may reasonably conclude that Trump was making things up, knowing that many in the press would tweet his claims verbatim, give him some favorable headlines, and maybe even send a push notification or two to subscribers.
It worked. The Washington Post was joined by the Associated Press, CNN, The Hill, ABC News, Politico, Axios, MarketWatch, Reuters, and others in publishing irresponsible headlines. There was no “middle-class tax cut.” He was just saying things in hopes of getting some votes, and as a man who has constantly lied about things big and small, the press shouldn’t have taken him at his word.
And let’s be perfectly clear: it truly does not matter if uncertainty over the claims was addressed in the articles themselves. Most people do not read beyond headlines, so the result of these stories was to create a less informed electorate.
This, of course, was just one of many examples of Trump lying to the press and being rewarded with the exact headlines he wanted. The same recommendations and principles outlined in my Media Matters article can and should be used for stories on various topics.
And finally, it’s long past time for the Times to stop writing its headlines in the snobbiest possible way.
Readers and journalists alike have long made fun of the Times’ distinctive headline style. From a 2014 New York Observer article headlined (tongue firmly in cheek), “For ‘The New York Times’ Headlines, Ultimate Style Reached":
The New York Times has a very distinctive style for headlines: start with a preposition and invert the basic structure that most sane headline writers would use.
That about sums things up. Instead of writing, “Palestinians Say Israelis Kill Hundreds in Hospital Strike,” the paper went with, “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say.” It would have been slightly better to go with the former, as at least then the group making the claim — the Times certainly could have been more specific than just saying the claim was from Palestinians when it would have been more accurate to say “Hamas” — would have been front and center rather than an afterthought.
It’s 2023, and an update to how the Times writes headlines is long overdue.
“[Statement of Fact That Supports Narrative of a Specific Group], Say [Group/People Associated with Group]” is a crutch. It lets news organizations off the hook for any misconceptions readers might have about the claim or its truth. It opens the door to being able to publish anything at all, no matter how true it is or not, by hanging the veracity of the claim on a technicality that most people won’t notice (defenders of the practice may say, “It says ‘[Group] Says’ right there!”). It’s sloppy, and it fails audiences.
tl;dr for news organizations: do better.
That’s it for me today. I hope everyone’s having a good start to their week. I’ll be back tomorrow with a paid edition of the newsletter, so please consider upgrading your subscription if you enjoy my work.