Things To Act
Friday, April 02, 2004
Reader Response: Headline Bias
A reader comments on my NYT-bashing below: I have to say that I don't think that the "Setback" headline is as bad you suppose. Maybe I've been indoctrinated for too long, but it strikes that the term is appropriate in the context. Saying that a setback has been dealt to gay marriage is true. It is not necessarily a value judgment, just a statement of fact: the gay marriage movement has been dealt a setback, just as the deficit hawks have been dealt setbacks by the Bush administration. I agree that the author probably has a definite position favoring gay marriage, but that bias was not necessarily reflected in the titling.

My response: First, the headline didn't actually address the core news of the article, namely that the MA legislature had passed a proposed amendment. Not actually addressing the content of the article is one of my pet peeves, so I tend to whine about bad headline writing in any news context.

Second, if the Times is strictly objective, it shouldn't be overeager to either frame stories as either/or clashes or to be biased against the status quo. The first phenomenon consists of taking a complex issue and trying to boil it down to two opposing sides. Conflict is a news value, but most issues are (dare we say) nuanced enough that a simple either/or perspective doesn't work well. Supporters of 'gay marriage' might support the MA legislature's action, for whatever reason (such as keeping the issue in the news), or opponents oppose it (for favoring civil unions, perhaps), but you won't learn that from the Times' oversimplification. Instead, your first impression on looking at the story is of a clash between two positions (one of which must be Right and the other Wrong, and the Times gives a broad hint which it favors). Second, any departure from the assumption of the status quo opens the possibility of bias. We don't hear about setbacks to 'prohibition' or 'free silver,' and would assume that any paper that chose to run such stories would probably have an ax to grind. Emerging social trends are, of course, news, but they should be framed as possibly emerging, not taken for granted. A headline such as 'SSM Advocacy Group X Sees MA Amendment as Setback' could be valid, as it would reflect actual news (though of a probably trivial sort, depending on the group), but the headline as it stands is no more appropriate than 'MA Legislature Defends Marriage.' Both imply a value judgment, and neither communicates actual news.

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