Headline most likely to be corrected, pronto

As I have explained before, one of the most painful realities that reporters face is that the vast majority of news consumers do not understand who writes, and who does not write, the all-important headlines that top news reports.

Any reporter who has worked more than, oh, a month or two, knows the pain of picking up the telephone at work and being chewed out by a reader who is furious about a headline and, thus, is furious about the story. It’s especially painful when you get this forwarded call via the company switchboard — a job that one would assume involve knowing who does what in the newsroom.

So, once again, here’s the crucial info: Reporters write news stories; copy editors or designers write the headlines. It is very rare for a reporter to be consulted on the contents of a headline. Trust me: I’ve worked as both a copy editor and as a reporter.

Now, to make matters more complicated, different copy desks may write different headlines at different stages of a story’s life in analog and digital ink.

When my column goes out from the Scripps Howard News Service, it has a headline on it produced by the DC bureau copy desk. That digital missive goes out to hundreds of North American newspapers where, if editors decide to use this particular column, the local copy desk team then writes its own headline that will fit neatly into the page layout. There may be a completely different headline in the online edition, one packed with magic words (this is what I am told) that appeal to search engine robots.

This brings us to a story that ran in the Sacramento Bee the other day. The headline proclaimed:

Baptist pastor convicted of molesting 5 girls in his Citrus Heights home

The lede for the story stated, of course, the essential facts.

The trial came down to the word of a Baptist preacher who castigated as liars the troubled little girls who called him a child molester.

Since this was a front page story — one with links, tragically, to a host of other molestation stories across America — it drew the attention of editors at the McClatchy newspaper chain’s bureau in Washington, D.C. The national desk clipped the story a bit and added a new headline.

However, while the lede for the story remained the same, the national desk changed the headline. It’s safe to say that whoever wrote this headline either (a) has never taken a course in church history or (b) never visited a Baptist church of any kind.

Here’s the headline that, at the time I wrote this post, topped this report on the McClatchy site:

Baptist priest in California convicted of molesting five girls

Of course, many GetReligion readers — especially Catholics — are sure to think that there is another explanation for this glaring error. It is also possible that someone saw the words “molestation” and “children” and, thus, his or her fingers went on auto pilot.

Correction, please.

And consider this another example of a “made for GetReligion” story. It’s a theme day!

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    For what it’s worth, I’ve noticed that headline game many times. I’ve learned that if I want to find a story online, the last thing I do is to use the headline. Instead I use the reporter’s name and a few key words.

    The other problem I’ve noticed is “chop the story to fit the space”. Sometimes the story in the paper ends in mid-sentence which makes me think the chopping is done by computer with no human actually looking at the result or, more likely, caring enough to try to fix the problem.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Hey, we have the same problem reading RealClearPolitics or RealClearReligion, which carries your articles. You out to see what the “condensed” title is to this article on the index page!

  • Jerry

    I note in sadness and with no surprise that error has still not been fixed.

  • Ray

    And sometimes the writers themselves get the language wrong. Although it’s not mainstream media, Campus Progress recently published this article, “Openly Gay Clergy Navigate Denominational Politics,” by Shay O’Reilly. The article is riddled with inaccuracies and misleading language. Scott Anderson, a Presbyterian, is said to have been “ejected from the priesthood” when he was removed from pastoral ministry back in the 80′s. It strikes me as a clue that the author doesn’t know anything about the basics of Christianity if he/she can’t get that one right. [This is more picky, but the author also refers to “the ordination of LGBT pastors.” The more precise language in denominational language is “self-affirming, practicing homosexuals,” emphasizing the self-identity and the active sexual practice (rather than celibacy) of the person.
    http://campusprogress.org/articles/openly_gay_clergy_navigate_denominational_politics/

  • Kevin

    Factual accuracy is apparently optional to McClatchey, in certain cases. Why should McClatchey bother with accuracy when there’s an opportunity to slam the Church with the application of a little “common knowledge.”

    Seriously what kind of a thick dolt did the McClatchey outfit hire to write a chain-wide embarrassment like that?

  • John Pack Lambert

    I wonder if this just reflects ignorance on the part of someone that there is a difference between a “preacher” and a “priest”. Such ignorance would not surprise me. It would not surprise me if we soon see an article “Jewish priest convicted of x”.


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