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Friday, August 23, 2019
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Seares: Firestorm over the Times headline: How much a news story’s heading can tell

THE Page 1 banner headline in “The New York Times” of Tuesday (Aug. 6) said “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism,” on top of a news story about U.S. President Trump addressing the weekend’s two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.

Was the headline wrong because the story said something else, like a headline telling about a shooting death when the story is about a stabbing incident?

The headline was correct, technically, because Trump actually said what it said. But the “head” didn’t tell enough, a sin of omission that altered meaning. And the lack or deficiency made the headline bad, if not entirely wrong.

And an enormous pity, because the firestorm over one headline obscured the paper’s excellent coverage of the Trump administration.

‘History of hateful rhetoric’

Indeed, Trump said in his televised statement he denounced hate and white supremacy, but the headline “didn’t reflect his own history of hateful and racist rhetoric.”

For the past three years, more intensely in his current run for reelection, he has made divisive remarks, attacking people of color and refusing to condemn white supremacists. Continually and systematically. Then on one day, in the wake of the violence that killed at least 31 Americans in back-to-back mass executions, he said he advocated “unity against racism.”

Did he change his mind and admit fault? He did not. Trump read from a teleprompter, which meant he was restricted to scripted language. Not only did he not address racism by focusing on other issues: mental health and the influence of video games on violence. More crucially, he didn’t talk about the problem of unregulated ownership and possession of guns, which studies have blamed for the mass violence unique to the US.

What headline omitted

The NYT headline focused on the core of his comment but skipped on the failure to address the controversial issue of the effect of guns on the long-running spate of massacres in that country.

Elsewhere, it would’ve been dismissed as negligent or amateur handling. But this is the New York Times, which many Americans hold to a high standard (“The Times should know better”) and, for those who oppose Trump, regard as the bastion of “resistance” journalism.

The adverse comments, set off by a tweet on the “terrible”/“flawed” headline, called it “overly generous to Trump” by not carrying enough skepticism of what he said.

Context, nuance

Editors call it lack of context and nuance. To the reader, no matter how he views the US president --genius or idiot, dynamic leader or demagogue—the defect benefited Trump.

NYT editors quickly changed the headline in its second edition (“Assailing hate but not guns”), which papers don’t regularly do. Few headlines can “stoke anger” or “land the paper in hot water.” Particularly, when the fury is not limited to insulting tweets but spills over to cancelled subscriptions.


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