Scanners Beware

The importance of the headline writer was on display once again yesterday in coverage about Minnesotans’ attitudes about gas taxes.

The Star Tribune’s original headline read: “Minnesota Poll: No tax and no rush on bridge, public says.” However, the relative few who bothered to actually read the article learned that the public is basically evenly split on the issue: “The poll found 50 percent of respondents opposed raising the gas tax, while 46 percent supported it. The gap is within the poll’s margin of sampling error — 4 percentage points, plus or minus.”

Therefore a headline of “Poll: Public Split on Gas Tax” would have been more characteristic of a) the findings and b) the article.

However, once a headline is written and the Associated Press picks up the story, things get out of control. KXMB-TV, KXMC-TV, WKBT-TV, Duluth News Tribune, Fargo Forum, West Central Tribune and all went with the misleading headline AP used: “Poll shows lack of support for tobacco tax.”

There’s room for debate about the proper characterization, but I would hope we could agree that 46 to 50 percent of the public hardly constitutes a “lack of support.”

Given how many citizens skim headlines only these days, and how many broadcast news outlets “rip and read” AP headlines and ledes only, headlines are supremely important. Therefore, increasingly overburdened newspaper editors should focus more on headline accuracy.

– Loveland