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Spinning the Story In The Headline

Dangerous Myths Propagated In Bad Headlines

A quick nitpickity but important note on a journalism issue, raised by the headline in the Newsworks story on the controversial NJ Natural Gas pipeline hearing Рand a revision thereto.

Good headline writing is an art, and it plays a critical role in catching the reader’s eye and hopefully accurately encapsulating the story.

Headlines also reflect the style, philosophy, and readership of the news outlet Рjust compare a NY Post or Daily News tabloid headline with a NY Times or Wall Street Journal headline. It is clear who the sensationalist rag is and who appeals to a more informed or elite reader.

I put Newsworks in the latter category (i.e. aspiring NY Times/WS Journal) – in fact their motto is “Smart local news for the Philly region” and they come off as a PBS like outfit (perhaps they are? Are they a sister outlet to NJ Spotlight?).

Anyway, I don’t mean to pick on them and am not a regular reader, so I am not alleging that this is a common failure, but their headline yesterday on the NJ Natural Gas hearing was awful. You can still see it in the URL:

Pipeline Builder Says Superstorm Sandy Highlights Need For Backup Systems

I was not the only one at that hearing who was outraged by that misleading claim by NJ Natural Gas and I was shocked to see a quality news outlet carry that headline, so, in the spirit of the Newswork invitation to “Join the conversation”, I posted this comment on the story:

The headline is really bad – that claim about Sandy and LBI was ridiculed during the hearing.

Gas was shut off because pipelines were washed out by Sandy and caused fires. More gas or redundant gas would only make the problem worse.

Plus, extreme weather, storms like Sandy, and sea level rise are what threaten LBI and they all are driven by climate change.

Gas is a fossil fuel that is as bad or worse in terms of global warming potential.

The editors there must have listened, because I noticed that today the headline had changed to a similarly misleading and problematic headline – perhaps the headline writer was pissed off about criticism of her/his work, because, like sending a dish back to the cook, they made it worse:

Natural gas pipeline plan yields employment hopes, environmental worries in NJ

Again, I was not the only one at that hearing who was disturbed by the way that business groups tried to manipulate unions, so I posted this followup comment today:

Good that you changed the original headline regarding Sandy, but your new headline, which implies a conflict between jobs and the environment, may be worse.

Pipeline jobs are few and short duration.

In contrast, renewable energy jobs are many and permanent.

An industrial union that represents 110,000 workers that understands this, testified in opposition to the pipeline.

Stop creating false conflicts between jobs and environment and unions and environmentalists – that is a FAUX news tactic, not a Newsworks style.

The headline should fit the story: HUGE public opposition to pipeline!

The obvious “smart, local” story was about democracy in action – the hundreds of riled up local residents who turned out to oppose the pipeline! How could Newsworks miss that?

So, as you can see, there is a lot of meaning compressed in that headline. Beware of the hidden assumptions, ideology, and policy myths embedded in a headline!

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