Headline writer murders the truth!

In our information-dense world, we don’t read, we scan. if I receive an e-mail newsletter, it might contain a dozen headlines. if the headline writer is good, I might only click on one or two of the stories to see what it’s all about. But anyone in the e-mail marketing business can tell you that most people are too busy to click through. They scan the headlines and then move on.

So what happens when one of those headlines is misleading or just plain wrong? A perfect example appeared in a ZDNet e-mail I received this morning.[*] One headline read as follows:

Why we banned Windows Vista

Clicking through to the article itself reveals a subtle difference in the headline:

Why we ‘banned’ Windows Vista

Huh? Why the scare quotes around that word? Maybe because the National Institute for Standards and Technology didn’t ban anything? From the story itself  (emphasis added):

Simon Szykman, chief information officer at NIST, was slightly irked by some of the media reports on his agency’s move, which painted the ban as a major slap in Microsoft’s face. In fact, Szykman said, this is business as usual. Ultimately, NIST expects many of its PCs will run Vista.

Direct quote from the interview:

Q: What is your current position on Windows Vista?
Szykman: Our policy states that we’re not allowing users to install or deploy Windows Vista for the time being. We consider this to be an interim policy to give us the time to do the adequate testing of Vista before we deploy it. We don’t expect to have any obstacles that would prevent us from eventually deploying Vista.

So what happened to the truth? Let’s review. The original story, which was widely circulated, created the impression that an influential government agency – one that publishes the National Vulnerability Database of computer security issues – had found serious flaws in Windows Vista. The reality, it turns out, is that they were doing what just about every business and government agency is doing, which is to block deployment of a new operating system until it can be fully tested.

So ZDNet’s many subscribers open their e-mail newsletter today and see a headline for a follow-up story on this issue. That headline seems to confirm that the original story was true. Those who don’t click through and read the story will never notice that the headline is factually incorrect. Instead, they’ll file away another small bit of (incorrect) data that reinforces the original (incorrect) story.

A better headline might have been:

“We didn’t ‘ban’ Vista,” NIST chief says

Meanwhile, no correction on this story.

[*] Full disclosure: I write for ZDNet, but I have no influence over its news coverage, and I certainly don’t agree with every editorial decision that appears on its pages.

7 thoughts on “Headline writer murders the truth!

  1. “Politico Rushes to Crack the Story And Ends Up With Egg on Its Face”
    “.Web helps MSNBC get the story–wrong:”

    ShopTalk.com which is a TV related web site also notices the dangers of “cut and paste” journalism carried out by so many news outlets who hire inexperiences (or lazy) staff.

  2. I call this the “Slashdot Scare” tactic, so named for another site that hasn’t exactly shown the greatest regard for truth in headlines. (To be fair, they have gotten better over time, but a lot of the way things are still done there leave a bad taste in my mouth.)

  3. I used to let my blood boil over issues like this but I’ve finally had to accept the fact that all news agencies do it. One of the worst has been Wired, followed by “editoral news blogs” like Gizmodo or Kotaku (anyone in the Gawker family really). I’ve also seen some pretty horrible ones from ZDNet as well.

    It boils down to click-thru sadly, people don’t care about the bland truth, they need drama and action. What’s really sad is that the more of these high profile, eye-ball grabbing headlines I read the less pull that journal has with me. I used to consider Wired somewhat informative but for the most part I consider it trash, same with a lot of ZDNet. I’ve read entirely too many highly-biased, over-hyped headlines to think those news outlets have any shread of integrity left.

    A headline that’s been ‘sexed-up’ or over-dramatized tells me the publication has no faith in the writing or fact-checking ability of it’s journalists, and hence has to pull stunts to attract readers.

  4. True journalism is dead if it ever existed. You must now triangulate to get a modicum of truth.

  5. Dmills,

    I think that’s been true since the invention of the printing press. Once upon a time the technical press was considerably less inflammatory. But as tech has become mainstream and has moved into entertainment fields, it’s become more like other forms of media and journalism. Which is to say, a godawful mess.

  6. I remember when in my youth working for a short period of time as a reporter an editor called it the skill of writing a shotgun headline (I wrote about this as part of a larger article a while back).

    However at that time it was primarily the editors job especially in the smaller newspaper marketplace; now it is the author’s respeonsibility and many will use varing degrees of deception in order to get the digg.com or slashdot effect.

    I generally have now problem with it – after all it’s expected almost as the norm these days. But when it reached Enquirer type deception then I get a little pissy.

  7. The difference comes in people who know OS deployment convention and the masses who do not. For the masses, the headline is a slam and all the evidence they need to guffaw at Microsoft (or just Vista).

    Almost all IT departments are going to take their time testing Vista, and hardly any would roll out an upgrade this early. If what you have now is stable, why bother with Vista? Wait on the next Windows. But hey, I see Faux News has taught a generation how to fudge and smudge. Facts are just another thing you throw against the wall and the word no longer denotes truth anymore.

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