Take headlines with a grain of salt

Never underestimate the power of headlines.There might be nothing more potent or more dangerous in newspapers than the headlines. There might also be nothing more misunderstood. One headline in Tuesday’s Daily provides an example.
After a fire at Sigma Chi fraternity, Daily reporter Nathan Whalen wrote a brief summary of the incident for the paper. There wasn’t enough time to produce a full news story, so the paper ran a photograph of the scene with Whalen’s short summary beneath it. Just above the photo was a headline that read, “Flaming greeks.”
A couple people were upset by the use of such a flippant headline to describe such an unfortunate incident. They were right. The headline was insensitive and, unfortunately, probably added to the lingering perception that the Daily harbors an anti-greek bias.
Unfortunately for Whalen, he became the target of this criticism even though he had nothing to do with the headline.
It is one of the most persistent misconceptions about newspapers that reporters write their own headlines. They don’t. Except at the smallest newspapers, headlines are written by copy editors, not reporters. But it is reporters who inevitably take the heat.
It might seem illogical to have headlines written by people who don’t write the stories, but it is a necessary function of the production process. Reporters don’t know where their stories are going to appear or how much space will be available. These decisions have to be made later, long after the stories are finished.
All reporters have felt the frustration of having a story undermined by a bad headline. Reporters can spend hours or days working on a story, tracking down sources and crafting their writing to ensure balance and accuracy, only to have their work shattered by a headline that is misleading, sensational or just plain bad.
Reporters know that headlines not only draw readers to stories, but they frame how readers perceive those stories. Charges of bias and sensationalism are sparked as often by headlines as by the stories they describe. And reporters, whose names are attached to their stories, are forced to take the fall on behalf of their anonymous, copy-editing brethren.
The importance of headlines to the perception of papers’ fairness and accuracy cannot be overstated. Copy editors, section editors and production staff all need to take extraordinary care with writing and reviewing headlines to ensure they are done well.
At the same time, readers need to recognize that headlines are not written by reporters — and so reporters should not be blamed. More importantly, readers should consider how difficult it is to write a good headline. The task seems simple enough, but writing a pithy and descriptive summary of a story that fits perfectly into a tight space can be maddeningly difficult. This is not to excuse bad headline writing, but readers should not give more weight to headlines than they deserve, and they should not assume that reading headlines is a reasonable shortcut to reading the stories.

Gamil al-Batouti: the next Richard Jewell?
It has been more than three years now since security guard Richard Jewell was first identified by the Atlanta Journal as the key suspect in the bombing of Centennial Park at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The Journal story set off a media frenzy and rush to judgment that has become a quintessential illustration of journalistic excess.
After three years of hand-wringing and second-guessing by reporters, however, the mistakes from Atlanta are being repeated with frightening similarity in the coverage of EgyptAir 990. Indeed, EgyptAir 990 co-pilot Gamil al-Batouti could be the next Richard Jewell.
This might seem like an odd comparison. Richard Jewell was innocent. Gamil al-Batouti, all U.S. sources suggest, is not. But that is precisely the point. The U.S. sources, all of them anonymous, have painted al-Batouti as the culprit in this tragedy, and most people seem content to believe it, yet not a single source has gone on the record with a formal accusation against him.
Indeed, virtually every key revelation in this story — whether true or not — has come from anonymous sources. A quick glance at the stories published in the Star Tribune in the week after the EgyptAir 990 voice recorder was recovered shows that almost every piece of information came from “government officials,” “sources close to the investigation,” “EgyptAir officials,” “law enforcement sources,” and other unnamed people. None of the key accusations or revelations came from named sources.
Because no one will go on the record with significant information, reporters have filled in the blanks by other means. The result has been a series of wildly contradictory stories.
One story suggests that al-Batouti uttered a prayer before the plane began to plummet. Another story suggests that he said this prayer multiple times. Another story says that he didn’t utter this prayer at all. And another story points out that this “prayer” is in fact commonly used by Egyptians and might not mean anything. All of this information came from anonymous sources.
More troublesome than the factual inaccuracies and contradictions, however, is the presumption of guilt being applied to al-Batouti. We are just beginning to learn what happened on EgyptAir 990, yet every aspect of al-Batouti’s life has been scrutinized by the news media. His finances. His relationship with his family. His satisfaction with his career. His medical history. His mental stability.
Just three years ago, journalists were burned after conducting similar investigations of Richard Jewell, another suspect whom the government never said it was targeting, but whom the media fingered through anonymous accusers.
Jewell suffered many of the indignities now being felt by the al-Batouti family. Reporters painted Jewell as a loner and a hero “wannabe,” staking out his house and eliciting derogatory statements about him from past friends and acquaintances.
It might be that al-Batouti did indeed commit this horrible act. But that is beside the point. Whether he did or not, he should be presumed innocent until someone in the government has the evidence and the guts to go on the record with a formal accusation. Until then, he should be treated like everyone else who was unfortunate enough to be on that flight. He should be treated as a victim.
Erik Ugland is the Daily’s readers’ representative. He welcomes comments about his columns or the Daily at [email protected]