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'Heds' Will Roll: Readers React To Headlines Gone Wrong

NPR's digital news team celebrates great headlines and their authors with a "Wall O' Fame" in the newsroom.
Annie Johnson
NPR's digital news team celebrates great headlines and their authors with a "Wall O' Fame" in the newsroom.

The reaction to the headline on Danielle Kurtzleben's Nov. 5 online article about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump ("We Read Donald Trump's New Book So You Don't Have To") was swift—and in my mind, deserved, and not just because the phrase has become cliché.

In the comments below the story, one commenter, with the handle "rosswilliams," wrote: "The headline says it all. No need to actually pay attention, NPR and the rest of the popular media can tell you everything you need to know in a sound bite."

Just a few hours later the headline was changed. It now reads: "Trump's New Book Doesn't Say Much, But Neither Do Lots Of Political Books."

My office, too, is getting quite a bit of mail these days about what readers see as objectionable headlines. Some, like the one on Kurtzleben's piece and the recent "Why Do People Get So Bent Out Of Shape About Drinking While Pregnant?", are seen as too snarky, inappropriately informal or biased. Listeners complain that some other headlines are misleading, or come across as "clickbait," which Oxford Dictionaries defines as "[Internet] content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page." Of course, that's one of the purposes of any headline: to be interesting enough that readers will want to learn more.

As NPR has moved more deeply into the digital world, and not just radio, those clicks have generated more internal interest. Overnight, the digital team distributes internally an analysis of the previous days' traffic at NPR.org, including total visits; percentages visiting via desktop computers, tablets and mobile devices; which social networks drove the most traffic; and the top 50 stories by page views (clicks).

NPR does not sell conventional ads, but it solicits underwriting support partly by touting the number of viewers (or listeners) it reaches. Like other media organizations, NPR also wants to attract fickle audiences that have many more options these days — and attract younger audiences that gravitate more toward digital than listening to the radio in their cars.

In this context, headlines on stories become ever more important in generating interest when potential readers/listeners are, say, flicking through Facebook and must be enticed to stop and click on an NPR story.

"It's definitely a challenge to attract or entice readers while at the same time being thoughtful and sensitive and true to the story," Scott Montgomery, NPR's managing editor for digital news, told me. He added: "We're in an era where headlines have never been more important."

That importance was underscored in Montgomery's recent newsroom memo urging NPR journalists, as part of their planning for a story, to "write 3 great headlines: if people only see the headline, what must it say?"

Reporters and their editors write so many of their own headlines now because NPR has only three copy editors monitoring all web content, Montgomery said. While all copy gets vetted, some oversight happens post-publication.

Montgomery said NPR needs to pay more attention to its headlines, and that will soon happen. The two-person team overseeing the NPR.org home page is being doubled, and as part of that step the copy editors and home page team will be able to consult on and review most material.

In addition, for non-breaking news stories, NPR is changing its approach to web posting. Instead of pushing to post non-urgent stories as soon as they are ready to go, the newsroom is being encouraged to adopt a more thoughtful approach, including taking time to craft the right headline and figuring out a strategy to attract readers on various social media platforms. To better reach the intended audiences, "let's slow down the process," Montgomery said.

A Sampling of Complaints

Bearing in mind that NPR is making changes that, it is hoped, will result in fewer headlines that readers find objectionable, here is a review of a few headlines that some NPR readers found problematic.

NPR's blog 13:7: Cosmos and Culture, which features "Commentary on Science and Society," recently ran a piece with the headline "Climate Change Is Not Our Fault." A reader named Matt, who said he was from Pelham, Mass., called it "irresponsible and dangerous, no matter that the article goes on to say that it arose out of our activity, that we have a moral reason to stop it, and that the only reason it isn't our fault is that we didn't have the scientific know-how to predict the harmful effects at the time." Some readers, he wrote, will only read the headline, which, he added, "seems to serve no purpose other than to generate outrage (and thus clicks). NPR can and should be better than this."

I asked the piece's author (and headline writer) Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, in Rochester, N.Y., about the headline.

In an email, he defended it this way:

The opinion piece was specific in its description of a new way of discussing climate change that shifted the debate away from seeing humans as essentially to blame for climate change in the sense of committing a crime. As I discussed in the piece the narrative that emphasizes humanity's blame or fault for "destroying the Earth" is one reason why the political polarization is so effective. In its place I offered a different narrative where Climate Change could be seen as a kind of natural consequence of the activity we have been engaging in for at least 6000 to 8000 years (depending on when you want to count the beginning of our city infrastructure building). Since we did not have the scientific capacities to understand the consequences of building a new infrastructure with fossil fuels 100 years ago, the unintended consequences of that activity can not, and should not, be seen as evidence of a crime against nature.

It is exactly because we are so used to hearing the polarities of the climate change debate cast in terms of "human beings as guilty" vs "there is no climate change" that the title had resonance.

Many commenters, he added, responded positively: "While you still see lots of comments that just replay the usual talking points, some people were engaging in a very different kind of discussion about what blame and fault and responsibility mean in a planetary context."

Frank's editor, Meghan Sullivan, wrote to me: "I don't think that this particular headline stands out as problematic on a piece that is a commentary — or in comparison to other 13.7 blog posts. However, I do think that the fact that this blog is commentary could be more evident on the home page. I think that it is quite clear once you get to the blog's main page or any given post. The tagline has the word 'commentary' in it." (Montgomery later told me that changes are in the works to make that clearer.)

Other recent headlines have drawn listener concerns over their accuracy. "GOP Candidates Criticized For Oregon Shooting Response" was changed, in response to a listener complaint that the story only referenced criticism of two of the eight candidates cited. The revised version was: "After Oregon Shooting, GOP Candidates Urge Caution In Response."

Alexander B. Howard complained via Twitter about "In Peru, Folk Remedies Like Frog Smoothies Are Comfort Food," further noting on his Facebook page that "I don't buy that this is 'comfort food' for Peruvians, at all. I don't think these things are at all representative or even common."

Eliza Barclay, the editor who wrote the headline, said she was inspired to use the term because the author did as well, although that line got cut in editing. "In this case, we used 'comfort food' a bit differently than what the term often brings to mind: home cooking like aji de gallina, a rich and creamy Peruvian chicken dish the listener may be thinking of. In this case, a frog smoothie is a food that may bring comfort because of its folkloric healing properties."

I'm with Howard on this one.

Listeners also wrote to my office with concerns about "Fukushima Study Links Children's Cancer To Nuclear Accident," and "Why Hurricane Patricia Can't Be Blamed On Climate Change."

As listener William Gloege of Santa Barbara, Calif., wrote, the Fukushima story first referenced a new study that "suggests children exposed to the March 2011 nuclear accident may be developing thyroid cancer at an elevated rate." The story then went on to say: "But independent experts say that the study, published in the journal Epidemiology, has numerous shortcomings and does not prove a link between the accident and cancer."

Listener Gloege, who objected to covering the first study to begin with, wrote: "The article itself is good because it rightfully discredits the study it covers." He added, however, that the title was "highly misleading," adding, "What would you conclude seeing only that story title?"

I asked Geoff Brumfiel, author of both stories, about the headlines, many of which he writes himself.

Regarding the Fukushima story, he wrote: "As the reader indicated, the story is reasonably balanced. The headline was the simplest headline I could think of: it stated the claim of the study. Since both the lead of the story and the tease provided the balance, I wasn't too worried about it."

In the second case, he wrote, "I originally thought of a headline 'Can we blame climate change for Patricia's rapid rise?' (or something like that). But my radio editor said that was no good, because it suggested we perhaps could blame climate change. So I went for the next most grabby option: 'Why Hurricane Patricia Can't Be Blamed On Climate Change'."

He added, "I figured that would challenge our readers a bit, but additionally, it really does accurately reflect the article. Much of the criticism I've seen on Twitter suggests that I should have emphasized the fact that climate change could lead to more storms like Patricia. Technically that is the prediction, but it's a prediction about the future and thus uncertain. That Patricia can't be easily linked to climate change right now seems to be a fact, according to the researchers I spoke to."

Finally, back to that Trump headline. Beth Donovan, NPR's political editor, told me by email that "the main reason the headline was changed was that the initial one didn't reflect the story, which was a thoughtful take on political books in general."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.
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