Headline News

Baby get to the point,
And quit the full play
We only read the headlines.
We only read the headlines anyways.

– Lazyboy
Lyrics from “We only read the headlines”

Here’s something you don’t read very often in this or any blog very often: The Star Tribune did something right today.

The Minneapolis-based daily newspaper’s front-page headline, “More for roads, less in your pocket” actually presented scanners a balanced portayal of both the cost and the benefit associated with a state proposal to increase the gas tax in order to fund transportation improvements.

“Yawn,” you say? Well, this kind of balance has not been in evidence in recent weeks, and it has impacted the debate. Strib headlines have only stressed the cost side of the proposal, which constitutes a big messaging win for opponents.

For instance, recent Strib headlines have been:

• “House-Senate conferees ok nickel gas tax increase”
• “In the end, gas tax increase may not have the votes”
• “Poll: Should Gov. Pawlenty veto the gas tax increase?”
• “Senate oks $1billion tax increase”
• “Roll call: How the Senate voted on the tax increase”
• “Poll: Would you support a gas tax increase”

In all of these headlines, there is no mention whatsoever of the service benefits that accompany the tax increase, such as less congestion, faster commutes, less pollution, increased economic productivity, fewer fatalities and more leisure time. As such, the headlines don’t constitute an error of commission, but presenting the costs without the benefits does constitute a significant error of omission.

Understand, I’m not talking conspiracy theory here. I know this is a bias that is probably driven by the headline writers’ preference for the brief, provocative and marketable, rather than an ideological preference. But it’s a bias with implications nonetheless.

From a PR perspective, this is actually a very big deal for two primary reasons. First, most readers read headlines rather than the whole article, and if scanners don’t get balance from the headline, they don’t get balance.

Second, surveys show that voters are easily manipulated on this issue. Here’s why: Voters are conservative in the abstract, but more liberal in the specific. For instance, when pollsters ask voters if they support “higher taxes” or “more government spending,” with no further elaboration, a majority will generally oppose. However at the same time, majorities will respond with more liberal response when asked whether they favor things such as “investing more in education,” “funding road improvement and expansion,” “dedicating funding to save our lakes and forests,” all of which, of course, constitutes “government spending.”

So when it comes to government services, polls show voters’ have muddled and inconsistent viewpoints, which makes them easily swayed by imbalanced portrayals. So, it really does matters that the news media balance the coverage of it’s fiscal stories, not just in the body of the story, but also in the headlines (or when it comes to TV news, in the all-important promotional ads, previews and teases).

– Loveland

2 thoughts on “Headline News

  1. Right Arm!
    You speak the truth, Loveland.
    Institutional journalism always comes down on the side of the status quo. And so much of business and government journalism defaults to assuming that the people in charge are doing good things.
    Where are the headlines that say “Employees Take It in the Shorts” rather than “CEO Makes Huge Pile of Swag”?
    That headline jumped out at me this morning, too. Good catch.

  2. One more thing —
    The headline could also have said “Your Children Will Pay for Today’s Road Improvements,” as the bill allows more borrowing. Republicans, supposedly the stewards of fiscal responsibility, are so scared of raising taxes on current voters that they now routinely pile more debt on voters not yet born — those who can’t vote these folks out of office yet.

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