How not to write a headline

by David Safier
The Star has put together some misleading headlines in the past — lots of them, actually — but this is close to their worst.

If you watched Obama's town meeting yesterday or any of the news coverage, you probably saw his exchange with a questioner who began by saying he was an NRA member, then asked a politely aggressive question about how Obama planned to pay for giving millions of people health care who don't have it now. Obama gave a politely pointed response, saying he would try to find savings in the current system and raise taxes on people earning more than $250,000. It was as civil as could be. The questioner later said he was "well impressed" with Obama's answer, though not entirely convinced.

So, the story is, Obama has a civil confrontation with a questioner which is a contrast to some of the scream-fests we've seen at other town halls.

Here's the headline and sub-head the Star created for the AP article:

Health-care funds short, Obama says
'I can't cover another 46 million people for free,' he concedes at Montana forum

It's hard to imagine a more misleading headline. It sounds like Obama, on the ropes, has to admit that he can't pay for his plan.

[At the end of this post, I've put the first paragraphs from the story, so you can see for yourself how misleading the headline is.]

But maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe other papers saw the AP article the same way. Let's look at headlines other newspapers wrote for the same article.

Civil exchanges, polite skepticism at Obama forum. The Oregonian, Portland, OR (same headline in the Charleston Daily Mail, Charleston, WV)

Polite skepticism at Obama forum. Northwest Herald, McHenry County, Illinois

Obama forum is civil: Polite exchanges present at first of four-state gathering. PostStar, Glens Falls, NY

I didn't cherry-pick the headlines, by the way. These are the ones I found by Googling the opening sentence of the article.

I sense a trend here. Most papers characterized the town hall, accurately, as one conducted with civility where some people were skeptical of Obama's health care plan. The trend was not followed by our one remaining daily.

The Star put the story on the top, right column of today's front page. It's obvious to me they purposely sensationalized the head to give the story more punch. ("Make it bleed, so we can make it lead!") When I picked up my paper this morning, opened it and saw the headline, my heart sank. I thought Obama had to concede he didn't know how he was going to pay for health care. Then I read the article and found I had been mislead.

No, I'm not done yet. If the Star wanted a front page health care story containing some genuinely important information people might not know, they could have gone with any of these three which were on the inside pages of the front section:

  1. Lobbyists swarm to debate on health care. An accurate headline. The story tells how health care lobbyists are outspending everyone else in their efforts to influence the legislation, or kill it.
  2. GOP backers of end-of-life counseling backing off. Another accurate headline, about Republicans who have supported end-of-life counseling legislation, even the very language the "Death Panel" people have been screaming about, but have backed off out of fear of retribution.
  3. Britons laud their health care against US critics. Yet another spot-on headline about Britons debunking the ridiculous lies being told about their health care system.

The Star can write accurate headlines, but over and over, I've seen them distort the content of articles with their headline choices. It's easy for someone like me, who tends to read deep into news articles, to forget that most people read no more than the head and the first few sentences. If those are inaccurate, the reader comes away with a skewed picture of the story.

As promised, here are the opening paragraphs of the article.

The moment seemed to capture the grand tradition of democratic town hall meetings.

A man named Randy Rathie stood up at an event on Friday and put President Obama on the spot with a pointed, though polite, question. Obama responded in an equally courteous fashion.

"You can't tell us how you're going to pay for this," Rathie said of Obama's health-care overhaul. "The only way you're going to get that money is raise our taxes."

"You are absolutely right," Obama said. "I can't cover another 46 million people for free. I can't do that. We're going to have to find money from somewhere."

He has proposed higher taxes for families earning more than $250,000 a year and said there were also other ways to find money, including streamlining the system and eliminating what he said were subsidies to insurance companies.

Later, Rathie told CNN that he was "well-impressed" with Obama's response. "Now he's given me his word, personally, that he's not going to raise my taxes," Rathie said, but at the same time, "they're trying to put in a program that they don't even understand."

It was a civil exchange between a single citizen and his nation's leader over an issue that inflames passions — and it was a marked contrast to the vitriol from opponents that has marked town hall events held by Democratic lawmakers across the country.
"But your point is well-taken," Obama added. "I appreciate your question and the respectful way you asked it."

2 responses to “How not to write a headline

  1. Francine;

    Only 2% of US Households make more than $250,000 per year. Do you really believe it is possible to finance all of Obama’s plans by only taxing those individuals?

    To put this in perspective. That 2% of households makes 24.1% of all the income in America. It is estimated that total US income is somewhere around 8 trillion dollars, per year. That means that that 2% earns, in total, around 2 trillion per year. Over the next 10 years, without ANY additional spending, just what President Obama has budgeted, his deficits are predicted to approach 10 trillion dollars. In other words, we would have to confiscate an additional 50% of the income of those earning over $250,000 per year, just to pay off the deficits. This is in addition to the taxes those folks already pay, which is approximately 33%. So, just to break even, we would have to confiscate 88% of their income. This is all BEFORE we even talk about paying for free health care for 300,000,000 Americans. We haven’t even talked about the National Debt yet, which is another 11 trillion dollars.

    If you made $250,000 per year, gross, but had to give $220,000 to the government, how long do you think you would keep up the hard work? Not very long, I imagine. Why bust your butt for $30,000 per year, when you can make the same with a middle class job?

    When you look at the actual, real numbers, you have to see that President Obama’s promise to pay for everything by only taxing those that make over $250,000 is a lie.

  2. Francine Shacter

    I watched that on TV. Obama outlined, in some very useful detail, a genuine, sensible and well-thought out plan to raise the money without raising middle class taxes. I don’t have the exact wording, but I’m sure it is available. It was succinct and to the point. In his response, Obama thanked the man for his question and for the respectful way in which he had asked the question. For the Star to print only part of the quote, the part that was the most misleading, makes the Star a part of the misinformation problem. Is it any wonder that many of us look to the blogs we trust for the REAL news rather than read the misleading (at best)and downright dishonest reporting of our local press????