When headlines go wrong – a scientist’s perspective

The newspaper sub-editor can be a reporter’s greatest ally and worst enemy. When subs are on form they can save you from defaming someone or making yourself look like a complete idiot. On an off night they can introduce mistakes or misrepresent stories with ridiculous headlines.

Even when the reporting itself is accurate, a headline, caption or stand-first can change the whole meaning of that story for the large portion of readers who glance over it during their morning read. Just ask Simon Baron-Cohen, who in this week’s New Scientist outlines his nightmare experience when a sub-editor at The Guardian put an inaccurate headline and strap-line on a story detailing his research on autistic traits.

Baron-Cohen says he was “saddened” by the experience: “So how did The Guardian get it so wrong? First, because the headline writers went beyond the data to create a simple, bite-size but inaccurate message.

“Second, because they fused two issues that should have been kept separate: the study itself, on prenatal hormonal effects in children developing typically; and the issue of autism screening. While the journalist concerned made it clear in her article that these were separable issues, the headline and caption writers ignored such niceties and went for bold sensationalism.”

He goes on to ask: “Who are the headline writers? Articles and columns in newspapers are bylined so there is some accountability when they get things wrong. In this case, it was a nameless headline writer who seems to be to blame. Did he or she actually read the journalist’s article?”

Sub-editors are an interesting and increasingly rare breed. When working on the The New Zealand Herald, I came to know several of the country’s most experienced subs, most of whom have sadly departed the profession following APN’s move to consolidate its subbing pool for the entire group at the Pagemasters office in South Auckland. It used to be that the reporters in a newsroom sat a stone’s throw from the benches occupied by the sub-editors, who tended to start mid afternoon and work through, often until after midnight.

They’d work solidly through that time, churning through a pile of copy across all sections of the paper, from the front page to the obituaries. Most of them were intelligent, highly literate, grammar-hounds. They treated young reporters turning in flabby, grammatically incorrect copy, with disdain. I was on the pointed end of their barbs more than once. A gruff call would come through from a sub, beckoning me over to his side of the office because something I’d written didn’t make sense. As I was writing about the world of technology and the internet, most of it didn’t make sense to these crusty old subs.

In many cases, they saved me major embarrassment and I marveled at their ability to reduce the angle of a complex story down to a six word headline. But it went the other way as well. Often I’d pick up the paper in the morning and wince at the blunt headline used to sum up my nuanced story. Subs are also under pressure to keep the conveyer belt of new producing running smoothly and often have to work at a frenetic pace. The situation is compounded under the new centralised subbing system because journalists no longer share the newsroom with subs and sub-editors now have to edit copy for papers in regions they know nothing about. A little local knowledge goes a long way when it comes to editing stories. The upshot is that sub-editors, boxed in by their need to be economical with words and under the gun time-wise, make mistakes.

The Herald subs were a good friendly bunch, I’d regularly hang around and go drinking after the shift with some of them. But there was always a bone of connection between subs and reporters. When a reporter screwed up in a story, they would get it in the neck, first from readers or sources, then section editors and sometimes the editor himself. When a sub screwed up, it was often dismissed with a grumble from a section editor and a quiet word to the chief sub-editor. I’m not saying that sub-editors were any less willing than journalists to admit their mistakes. But subs being generally older and more established, there was a type of etiquette reserved for approaching them when things went wrong. As such, it felt to some reporters that subs got away lightly when mistakes were introduced in the subbing process. Reporters would field the outraged calls from aggrieved sources, blame it all on the subs, a correction would be published, but often the real issue was never discussed properly by reporter and sub-editor.

You can see then how the types of outcomes Baron-Cohen was faced with come about. Subs and journalists are not working as closely together as they used to, deadlines are tighter than ever before, so stories are being misinterpreted and badly headlined. The results can be disasterous, as Nikki Turner, Director of the Immunisation Authority and colleagues pointed out in a paper published recently in the New Zealand Medical Journal. They studied a wide selection of stories published on the MeNZB vaccination campaign run in 2004 and found that over half of the stories looked at had inaccurate or misleading headlines. As Turner and company noted:

“These case studies clearly demonstrate a wide range of responses generated within the media to the same story, showing there is not a standard predictable response, and individual journalists and subeditors can chose very different angles on the same theme. One can assume it will be difficult to consistently predict the behaviour of the print media with any one story.”

As important as it is to do everything to try and ensure good reporting, particularly in health and science – areas that directly impact on the public’s well-being, the media needs to do some urgent work to improve the interaction between journalists and the sub-editing pool, particularly as economic drivers change the organisation of sub-editing on newspapers so that there is less direct contact between sub-editors and journalists. For as the NZMJ paper suggests, media coverage can have a negative impact on the effectiveness of vaccination campaigns. In that example, the trend may well contribute to the fact that New Zealand has a low rate of immunisation in young children compared to other western countries. The media has immense power to mobilise the population on everything from cancer research to climate change. As such, we need to get it right, from headline to to the last paragraph.