Sunday, December 11, 2005

DeLay, Part 2: Criticizing the critics

After two of the three charges against Tom DeLay were dropped last week, I pointed to the discrepancies in news headlines.

I didn't mention the Houston Chronicle's head, "DeLay fails to get case tossed out." The paper's ombud says angry readers are justified in finding it biased: "Instead of taking a neutral or glass-half-full approach, the headline provided fodder to those who claim we are 'Chronically biased.' "

He asked the copy editor responsible, Helen Olin, to explain the headline. She responded:
"Our logic at the time seemed pretty straightforward. DeLay was in court with hopes that his case would get tossed. That didn't happen. We put that in the main headline and explained the split ruling in the deck. I truly had no intention of appearing biased. We wrote the headline based off the story's lead paragraph. ... The lead did not take a double-barreled approach (meaning the story's first paragraph didn't read that the judge rendered a split decision). Thus, our headline focused on DeLay failing to get his case thrown out. We felt our deck, which mentioned the conspiracy charge being dropped, added balance. The point size and the story's lead, not political bias or any other non-editing related force, influenced our actions with that headline. Had it been a story about any other politician with the exact same circumstances, we would have arrived at the exact same headline. I will certainly take that into consideration next time I'm working on a story with a politically charged nature."
The ombud, James Campbell, accepts her "earnest answer" and said that, yes, the headlines is technically accurate -- but it is still biased.

And in typical outsider fashion, Campbell suggests changing from:
DeLay fails to get case tossed out
to the too-long, confusing and poorly spelled and punctuated:
DeLay wins one, drops one, trial will procede.

Copy editors need to have thick skins, because headline criticism comes from all sides. And most criticism, I've found, has some merit. There's almost always a better headline out there, time warranted.

The Chronicle probably could have come up with a better headline. But James Campbell's example is laughable.

I'd try:
Two of three DeLay charges stand
Judge tosses 1 of 3 DeLay charges

(But a word of caution: Those two headlines say the same thing to me, but I bet people looking for bias would still say they'd found it there. There really is no pleasing everyone. And it can be tough to sort out valid complaints from hogwash. Just make sure you try.)


At 11:39 PM, December 12, 2005, Anonymous Mike said...

How would "DeLay still a cheating asshole" fit? I've never been good with counts, but I think that's pretty clear of bias. ;)


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