THE PUBLIC EDITOR: On writing complicated headlines for complicated stories

By JACOB TOOK | September 26, 2019

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A few readers pushed back against last week’s front-page headline “Students question impact of Philosophy donation.” The feature was an update on last year’s $75 million donation to the University’s philosophy department.

The initial question came down to accuracy — students in the piece call on the department to increase course offerings in Eastern philosophy, but is that the same as questioning the impact of the donation as a whole? Following up on that criticism led me to question the frame that guided the reporting of the piece.

I asked News & Features Editor Rudy Malcom to explain on behalf of the news editors why they took on this story. Malcom was the point person of the piece, meaning he worked with the writer to decide on an angle, brainstorm possible sources and craft questions ahead of interviews. 

I have to interject a quick note here: I spoke to Malcom, rather than the writer of the piece, because the criticisms I level against The News-Letter as Public Editor are directed to editors, not writers. However, it was an oversight on my part not to include the writer in this conversation, a mistake I’m not planning to repeat.

Malcom said the piece sought to follow up on the department’s original goal of expanding into Eastern philosophy after bringing on board two new professors in unrelated branches of philosophy over the summer.

“It’s important when administrators and department chairs make promises to students that they’re held accountable,” Malcom said. “We report on the efficacy of how these promises are being delivered so they don’t just fade into the past.”

When Hopkins announced the donation in January 2018, both the donor and the department chair made it a personal goal to divert some of that money to expanding courses in Eastern philosophy. It’s worth noting, though, that this goal wasn’t the entire focus of the donation, nor was it the focus of News-Letter or national coverage at the time. Yet last week’s piece focuses on where the money hasn’t gone — new courses in Eastern philosophy — rather than where it already has been put to use, like the new hires.

Yes, a big part of the role of The News-Letter is holding the University accountable, particularly when its decisions seem contrary to a significant chunk of the student body. But that isn’t the paper’s only role. Couching criticism of the department within a broader update, including more attention to the new hires, wouldn’t have significantly undercut the article’s effort in accountability. Instead, it would have enriched the coverage and given readers a deeper insight into the donation’s impact.

Certainly it’s important to raise criticism when warranted. But this shouldn’t have been the piece’s focus. A story’s most critical line should be just that — the story’s most critical line, not the entire story. When The News-Letter amplifies a critical perspective without filling in the rest of the story, it reinforces the perception that the paper’s coverage comes down too hard on the University.

Going forward, Malcom said the news editors would work to shift the frame of stories like this so that the most critical line isn’t centered quite so much.

For Malcom, part of this process is working with writers to develop broader questions for interviews, but the shift must come through on every level of the planning, reporting and writing process. Most stories should start with a neutral frame and build around criticism as needed. And of course, at the other end of that process, the headline must carefully reflect the full scope of the story.

Sometimes writing a headline is easy — there’s a clear cut-and-dry formula (pretty much just subject + verb + object). That formula boils down the story to the most basic parts so that readers know at a glance what they’re in for. Boiling down more complicated or contentious stories, however, can feel reductive or limiting — particularly on the front page. 

Towards the end of production (we’re talking well after midnight on Wednesdays), news editors sit down with one of the Editors-in-Chief to comb through the front page. They edit the first few paragraphs of each article to make the writing clear and to make sure to feature student voices early on if possible. Then, they write headlines. Typically, editors toss out ideas while the chief mans the keyboard until they settle on a few words which they feel best represent the piece.

When I was a news editor, this was a grim process. We spent about three to four hours on the front page of each issue. After controversial author Salman Rushdie spoke at a Writing Seminars reading, it took us almost an hour to land on “Rushdie examines intersection of politics and prose.” That was excessive.

This year’s news editors have taken steps to cut that time down. Malcom told me that they write down ideas for A1 headlines during lulls in production night, like while the front page gets copy-read. On average, they spend about 25 minutes on each of the four articles, and about five to 10 minutes on each headline.

Malcom reflected on the responsibility that editors have to word headlines carefully.

“If our sources don’t feel as though we’re representing their views in the headline, that’s a bad thing,” he said. “Students shouldn’t feel as though we’re stretching their words just so we can shrink the headline to the space on the front page. Sources should be able to trust us with their words.”

Right — space. Space is always an issue with headlines. Tricky headlines are usually tricky because there isn’t enough space on the page to fit an ideal headline. Sure, sometimes an extra half inch could mean the difference between eh and ooo, but plenty of papers publish different headlines in print and online. News-Letter editors do this occasionally, if there’s a perfect headline that just won’t quite fit. Why not normalize that at The News-Letter? That would give all section editors more flexibility and also let them work with writers more closely to choose the headlines for personal columns or op-eds.

Building on that, why not let headlines, particularly on A1, be more flexible? If you start counting from my first issue as a news editor (back in May 2017), the front page layout has varied six times to accommodate more complicated headlines. Editors think of these as “special” layouts — why not make special the new normal? How often does The New York Times front page look identical from one issue to the next?

I’m not saying varying front page headlines will make or break news coverage — content is still key. In this case, though, both the headline and content of the article raise valid concerns about how editors at The News-Letter approach this type of follow-up story. The mission of The News-Letter is to represent students and inform readers. When follow-up pieces like this get caught up addressing one criticism, they fail to cover the full breadth of the story and fall short of that mission.

We want you to be part of this conversation! We encourage all our readers, and particularly members of the Hopkins and Baltimore community, to email publiceditor@jhunewsletter.com with questions or comments about our practices and published content.

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