Often when I was a reporter, a source or a reader would call to complain about a story, and while listening to those concerns I realized the problem wasn’t with the story, but with the headline.
I believe this is the case with some of the reader concerns over stories that appeared in the Daily in the past two weeks. One reader said that a story that with the headline and subhead “Connerly’s crusade continues, Anti-affirmative action ballot initiatives planned for five more states in 2008” (10/24/2007) was inaccurate. Another reader thought the headline “Racist hazing among Greeks?” (10/30/2007) was unfair.
The first reader said because Michigan’s Proposal 2 did not ban all forms of affirmative action, the headline and the story were inaccurate. The reader said: “To refer to Prop 2 as a ban on affirmative action is simply dishonest.”
While I don’t think the Daily was trying to be dishonest, the reader has a point. Proposal 2 does not restrict other forms of affirmative action, such as preferences based on age or veteran’s status. Therefore the headline could be seen as inaccurate. But the reader’s problem with this headline demonstrates the difficulties writers often face when crafting headlines.
Given tight space to convey the central meaning of a news story, nuance is often left out. At the Daily, front page headlines are written by Managing News Editor Andrew Grossman. “The space is limited,” Grossman said. “We try to be as specific as possible, but that’s not always possible.” The paper also uses subheads, which appear below the main headline, and kickers, which appear above the main headline, to better describe the main focus of a particular story.
Editor in Chief Karl Stampfl has final approval of all headlines in The Statement, news and opinion sections and can rewrite them if he feels they are inaccurate, insensitive or just plain wrong. “I want the tone of the headline to fit the tone of the story,” Stampfl said.
Writing a headline for the affirmative action story was tough because the Daily had to sum up a complex issue in a small amount of space without using big words. “It’s very hard to convey subtlety,” Grossman said. It’s just not possible to convey all the information about Proposal 2 solely in a headline.
That said, I would like to note that in recent stories about affirmative action, the Daily has said Proposal 2 bans race- and gender-based affirmative action. The text of the amendment to the Michigan state constitution actually bans preferences based on “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” I think it’s important the Daily accurately represent in future stories about Proposal 2 what the amendment actually does, since national origin is a characteristic independent of race. I don’t think it is necessary to point out on every occasion what Proposal 2 doesn’t ban, but it should note accurately what the proposal does cover.
The second story “Racist hazing among Greeks?” raised concerns because of the use of the word racist. That story dealt with an accusation that a fraternity on campus was using hazing tactics that were insensitive to Mexicans. To the reader, the headline made it seem as though the Daily had already decided racism had occurred and therefore was not covering the story objectively. But I believe the question mark saves the headline, and it shows the Daily understands that the interpretation over what happened on that street in Ann Arbor seemed racist to some but might be seen another way by a different group of people. Grossman seems to be aware of the problems that words pose to readers and writers alike.
“Words have shades of meaning,” he said. When writing headlines, Grossman said, “you’re trying to get as close to the shade of the meaning as possible.”
The story about possible racist hazing by fraternities leads me to discuss one issue that is of concern to the Greek system on campus in regards to headlines, the use of the word “frat.” Daily policy is to refrain from using that word in news stories except in quotations by a source and to avoid if possible the use of the word frat in headlines.
The word is deeply offensive to fraternities, and I think the Daily should ban the word from its headlines. If a group on campus finds the use of a word highly insensitive, the Daily should do more than just avoid the use of the word in headlines, it should ban the word from its headlines altogether, especially if the word is already forbidden in the text of a news story except if used by a source.
-Paul H. Johnson is the Daily’s public editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org