Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Breaking news on the night desk ... and bias

It sounds as if the reader advocate at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has had enough claims of bias.

He writes about a note he received after the Iraq elections. The paper had a late enough deadline that Saturday night (Jan. 29) to get in reports of early violence and polls opening. It had this deck under the main head of "Hope, fear in Iraq":

"Amid scattered violence, voters trickle into polls."

Trickle. Trickle?! A reader was incensed:
"The use of the word 'trickle' on your front page headline to describe the historic voting in Iraq was worthy of al Jazeera and has to be in the Top 10 all-time examples of media bias."
That's so extreme as to be comical (and a great example of why I wouldn't make a good reader advocate, I guess; I doubt I'd come up with a civil response).

But David House uses it as an opportunity to explain how the night desk works when news is breaking. Here's a sample:
11:50 p.m. -- [Copy Desk Chief Tim] Sager releases the Page One summary to Sunday Coordinator Kate Gorman, who has designed the page and will flow the summary into place. The story for 26A is sent to News Designer Amanda Reiter.

Assistant Managing Editor/Operations Danny Vandegriff and other editors have jointly composed the main headline for Page One ("Hope, fear in Iraq").

Midnight -- Gorman holds Page One for a significant update in the summary. Reiter holds 26A for the update. And what is this news? Wires report there's a "trickle" of voters -- a small but crucial piece of the answer to the turnout question.

12:10 a.m. Sunday -- Election updates are complete. Vandegriff and editors have written the secondary headline on 1A: "Amid scattered violence, voters trickle into polls." Page One and Page 26A are released.
This does leave me wondering how it came that the AME for operations "and other editors" wrote those heads. (I have those "unnecessary involvement from higher up" alarms going off in my head.) Is the AME for operations usually there at midnight before a Sunday paper?

And one other passing comment: House is right: Readers are looking for bias in everything, and it's getting ridiculous. That is certainly not a biased headline.

But it's not a perfect headline, either. Hindsight makes this easy, but I'd say the headline should have been less exact. You know that saying voters trickle in will be dated by the time readers get the paper. Perhaps it's better to simply say that voting begins amid scattered violence.



At 11:27 AM, February 15, 2005, Anonymous Wyckyd Sceptre said...

The "trickle" subhead certainly was flawed, but I'm a bit surprised the Star-Telegram got so much grief for it. A couple of months ago, after a particularly awful performance by Vinny Testaverde led to yet another Cowboys embarrassment, the sports section used the headline "Vinny the poo" in gigantic type -- and apparently not many readers objected.

To answer your first question: The Star-Telegram just loves to bestow middle-management titles; it has about as many AMEs as do papers with twice the circulation. "AME for operations" is a fancy way of saying "night editor." And I'd bet that there was a revolt if Danny Vandegriff had not at least consulted Sager or some of the other excellent copy editors over there before going with those heads.

At 12:29 PM, February 15, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

In my experience, it's not at all unusual for top editors to consult on, or even dictate, headlines on major stories.

At 6:40 PM, February 15, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

I'm honestly not all that surprised that the Star-Telegram would get more grief about perceived bias in a head rather than a head that's juvenile but not really all that offensive. It's just that so many people want to jump on that media-bias bandwagon. There are a lot fewer people demanding stellar display type.

However, I will say that your comment is surpassed only by your name, Wyckyd Sceptre. If I get time tonight, I'm going to look at ST management numbers, see if I can draw any conclusions.

I guess I'm not really so against managers throwing their 2 cents' worth on headlines, especially on big packages. I do wonder whether the lead-up to the Iraq elections is big enought o warrant that treatment, but that's a judgment call.

But if you have upper managers staring over your shoulder on too many headlines ... I think hed writers would start to wonder if they have the trust of management. Copy editors have been hired to do a job; let them do it. There's certainly a line that can be crossed there.


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