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

3 thoughts on “Scanners Beware

  1. Chris says:

    Then again, a statistical error could reflect a 54% opposition to a tax increase. Absent that, the headline remains accurate. Nice try.

  2. Fox News says:

    WSJ: The Fox New Channel reported a 41% rise in operating income in the fourth quarter from higher affiliate fees and advertising growth. How did you accomplish that at a time when viewership is off and ratings are waning for cable news?
    Mr. Ailes: Well, the ratings aren’t off much….You’d be surprised. I get hundreds of emails a day from American people saying, “God, you’re the only thing we watch.” So, we feel a real responsibility to get the story straight and balance the story in some ways….
    When I see something [in the news] particularly horrible about America that I think is a little out of proportion to what is actually going on, I call up the desk and say, “Do you have any pictures of people lined up at the border trying to get out?” They say, “What do you mean?” I say, “I just watched that, and hell, we’ve got to get out of here, America’s a terrible place. We need to get out fast. There must be guys stacked up at the airport trying to get out of here.” No. It turns out everybody’s trying to get in, and nobody’s trying to get out. We’ve got to keep that perspective in mind when you cover the news. It doesn’t mean you don’t cover the bad news about America. You do. It means you don’t get up in the morning hating your country.
    WSJ: How does that philosophy translate to business news?

    Mr. Ailes: Well, capitalism works….And so you have to keep it in perspective. When you find nine companies where the CEO should be in jail, you should report it and make sure the guy goes to jail. But you have to recognize that there are . . .a lower percentage of businessmen who are doing bad things than other professions.
    WSJ: Does a shift in the political climate have any impact on Fox News’ ratings?
    Mr. Ailes: The Fox News Channel launched during Clinton, went through Bush, survived the war and will survive whatever happens in the future….I think we’re going to cover a Democrat presidency the same way we cover a Republican presidency. If they do great things, they’ll get great press. If they do bad things, they’ll get covered. It’s not going to matter really. Fifty-one percent of audience in the demo of 18 to 54 [year olds] is either independent or liberal….We don’t want to lose either group, so we work on presenting both sides.
    WSJ: What do you think of Alan Greenspan’s recent criticisms of President Bush?

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