Denver Post Publishes Two Misleading Headlines

The headline is part of the story. A misleading or factually incorrect headline is just as bad as an error in the text (if not worse, as it’s more visible). Today, the Denver Post published one ridiculously misleading headline and another arguably misleading one.

The following headline, “Colorado hospitals warn legislators that push for pricing transparency would ruin finances,” flatly contradicts the reporting by Michael Booth.

Booth explicitly writes that the fundamental concern is not “transparency,” but rather price controls. He writes, “Hospital officials from across the state said that they agree with more transparency in their charges and charity policies but that Aguilar’s bill amounts to price fixing that will ruin many facilities.”

Booth confirmed in an email that he did not recommend the title.

I contacted John Ealy, an editor with the Post, to get a better sense of how headlines are produced. “Reporters don’t have anything to do with it,” he confirmed. He said that, after a reporter files a story, that story moves to a copy editor, who writes a “web headline,” ideally “search-engine optimized.” Then the same editor or possibly a different one writes a headline for print. (It’s unclear to me how often a print headline varies from a web headline.)

In addition, Ealy said, “We have a copy chief. After the copy editor writes the headline and edits the story… it moves to another status, and a copy desk chiefs comes in and vets that headline, looks at it for accuracy.” Then “another copy editor” looks at page proofs.

So it does seem to me that considerable oversight goes into a headline. I wonder, though, whether it might make sense for the Post to bring the writers back into the process at some point, say, by allowing reporters to authorize or flag headlines. After all, the reporter is most familiar with the facts and nuances of the story. My guess is, that had he been asked, Booth would have recommended something more accurate.

The second misleading headline is the following: “Anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce handcuffed, sent to jail.” My complaint is about the description, “anti-tax.” To my knowledge, Bruce has never voiced support for the abolition of taxation. As an activist, he has worked for lower taxes, not no taxes.

In this case, though, the headline corresponds to the reporter’s text. The reporter, Jordan Steffen, describes Bruce as a “tax opponent.”

It is true that Bruce has tried to eliminate certain types of minor taxes, and it is true that generally his goal is to cut taxes. Yet still I think the headline and the copy offer readers a distorted view of Bruce’s activism. Ideologically, there is a huge difference between advocating lower taxes and advocating no taxes. I know true “anti-tax activists”—people who advocate the complete abolition of taxation (and I myself am interested in radical, long-term alternatives to financing government)—and their views ought not be confused with the views and activism of Bruce.

Certainly the Post should make every effort to avoid publishing blatantly misleading headlines, as in the case of Booth’s article, but I think the Postshould make the extra effort to avoid publishing headlines that are even arguably misleading. The fact is that Bruce is a “tax-cut activists,” not an “anti-tax activist.” I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the Post make the extra effort to achieve accuracy and clarity in its reporting.

Perhaps some consider my complaints trivial; after all, don’t the two headlines “sort of” get to the gist of what’s going on? Indeed. But I think we should strive to clarify our thinking as much as possible, not rely on approximate “truths” and vague understanding. In fact, there’s a difference between transparency and price controls. In fact, there’s a difference between somebody who advocates lower taxes and somebody who advocates no taxes. No doubt I too have slipped on comparable matters, but I think it’s worth stepping back sometimes and recommitting ourselves to pristine accuracy. (For example, for the headline of this piece, I added the word “Two” to clarify my meaning.)

One question I neglected to ask Ealy is whether the Post ever runs corrections for faulty headlines. Perhaps he will let me know.