Tuesday, July 10, 2012

July10: lesson one: the headline

The headline should reflect the theme of the news story. That's important because the headline is what people remember. In fact, it will often be the only part of the story that will be read. To write a headline that does not reflect the theme of the story, then, is to give a false impression. It is the sort of false impression that is often called lying. In journalism, it is called unethical. This is the first lesson of journalism school.

The truthfulness and accuracy of the headline are so important that it is usually written - not by the reporter - but by the editor for the page. (So let's remember to put the blame where it belongs.)

In this case, as well, it has been treated not as an ordinary story but as a SPECIAL REPORT, So one would think of it as one to get right. Now, look at the head at the right of p. A1. "Chemical control constantly improving: industry."

But the first column, a half-page one, is not about the industry at all. It's about a woman who suffers a chemically-caused epilepsy, and who has written to newspapers across Canada that the use of chemical sprays in gardens, for example,.is more dangerous than people realize.

That's the story. And one would expect a newspaper to consult - oh - say, doctors about this - or scientists - or somebody who is an authoristy on human reaction to such chemicals.

But there's not a word to suggest any such checking. Instead, the story suddenly switches to what is really a different story - FOUR columns of statements from executives in the industry that everything is okay - and no evidence presented at all.

Imagine if people complained of getting sick from the air near the refineries in St. John. The Tand T would a short column on that - with no checking with doctors, etc. Then it would write four columns from Mr. Irving and assorted execs saying the air in St. John is wonderful, and they often go there just to enjoy breathing it. Case closed.

We actually pay to read a newspaper that lies to us.

Well, it doesn't always lie. Sometimes, it's just juvenile. Take a look at today's op ed page. Big column by editor-at-large Alan Cochrane. Big - and so juvenile it could have been titled vroom-vroom.  The great day of the writer's life, it seems, came on Saturday when a whole, big bunch of motorcyclists all crossed the the bridge to PEI, all at the same time and all going vroom vroom.

Metro, he says, is still echoing from that epochal moment in Canadian history.

The tone of the whole vroom-vroom reminded me of the crush I had on a girl in grade three; and how I'd borrow a bike to ride down her block.  Then I'd pedal faster and faster so my feet were just a blur, and I'd figure she'd be looking out her window and seeing me. Vroom. Vroom.

Seriously, who gives a damn if a bunch of people on motorcycles (or in Ford pickups or  on skateboards) cross the bridge at the same time?

And it ends with a good, half-column that is really an ad for a motorcycle dealer.

This is supposed to be a page of thoughtful and informed comment about major issues. Check Gwynne Dyer in the column below it for what thoughtful and informed comment looks like.

What the staff-writers give us, inistead, is juvenilia.

These two examples - the front page story and the op ed one by Cochrane sum up much of what's bad about the Moncton Times and Transcript.
1. It lies.
2. When it doesn't lie, it's trivial.

And these are related bads.

The TandT is a newspaper only in the sense that the old, Soviet  Pravda was a newspaper.

It exists to mislead us about what is going on in the world.

I exists to feed us trivia so that we won't even think about those things we need to know about.

Then, for an example of confused reporting and bad headline writing all in one, check out the bottom of p. A1. "Moncton parking changes take hold". This is about Moncton's leap into the future with on-street parking, the idea being to generate business for downtown shops.

The first three paragraphs say it's going well. The fourth one says it's having no effect.

The story is continued on p.A7 with a new headline, "Downtown parking results positive" - which seems to contradict the earlier statement that it was having no effect. There is no significant evidence for any of the statements above.

So what do we really know so far?  Nothing. And it took the best part of a page to say nothing.

Meanwhile, it also said nothing about shale gas, Moncton High, or anything else of any importance.

Gwynne Dyer has a column well worth reading. But that's pretty much it.

There's very little on the plodding pace of investigation into the abuse of election laws in the last federal election - strange that it should go so slowly with a government that has a thin majority and thick plans. However, we can't be surprised. They'll still haven't done anything about the case of Brian Mulroney getting money in a suitcase. Remember that one?

But - if you're turned on by the thought of riding a motorcycle over the PEI bridge with a whole bunch of other motorcycles, and if you need to change your diaper at the thrill of people looking at  you, this is YOUR paper.

Vroom. Vroom.


  1. I thought Norbert's column today was pretty good.

  2. I thought it was well written; and I thought of giving it a thumbs up. But it's a subject I really don't understand - and that made me reluctant to make any comment.

  3. Thinking it over, that's what I should have said in my blog.