July 23, 2002
Keep an eye out for the headline assassins.
One of the things that I enjoy about being the editor of The Common Voice is the opportunity to come up with the "headlines" that appear above the opinions readers submit. Sometimes I can't help but make an editorial comment in my choice for a headline, but for the most part I aim for a succinct answer that reflects the point intended by the writer.
The editor has a lot of power in your typical newspaper. They are the ones that decide what the headlines will be and where they will appear in the paper. They don't have the power to tell you what to think, but they can control what issues most people are thinking about. How many times have you wondered why a story appears above the fold and another that is to you more important appears below the fold--or within the section?
Sometimes, political campaigns use this to their advantage. A story may really not be that important, but the headline itself can do damage. A press secretary and a reporter/editor get to know one another. A kind of informal deal evolves. The reporter gets access to the inner-workings of the campaign and the press secretary gets an opportunity to get his releases turned into stories.
I noticed a couple of stories last week in The State; "Sanford's farm fined for environmental violations" and "Sanford criticized for vacation charter." The above scenario jumped off the page at me. I have no proof that the story was fed to the paper by the Hodges' campaign, but I believe my gut serves me well on this one.
Now, I am not here defending Sanford. I am not saying the reports were not accurate. However, the headlines do not tell the whole story. In the end, the stories don't really hurt Sanford in the mind of any thinking person. It is the headline that hurts.
For instance, "Sanford's farm fined for environmental violations" looks pretty bad for a candidate who has made quality of life issues one of the positions of his campaign. Just don't stop at the headline.
Near the end of the article you read a remark by the official accessing the fine. He points out what happened with the Sanford farm was not unusual for an operation of that size. He mentioned that the fines are basically considered a cost of doing business.
What would have given the story more teeth would have been a comparison between the Sanford farm and other farms of comparable size. Had the violations been in excess of those of other farms you would have had more than smoke. As it is, the lack of such information makes the piece appear to be disingenuous.
Of course, the story and the facts presented or withheld are not the point. It is the headline that does the damage. The assassin packs up his weapon and waits for another opportunity to strike.