Complaints we heard: There’s more to the story than just its headline

The NNC has received several complaints this year about headlines. In two recent examples, both complainants were concerned that the headline of the story contained misleading or insufficient information. The NNC found no breach in either case, but instead identified relevant points for the purpose of reader education.

In one case, an individual was concerned that the headline of a Globe and Mail article incorrectly attributed the statement that ‘Mi’gmaq students [were] no longer welcome’ in the province to the New Brunswick premier, or worse, to all New Brunswick residents. The individual felt that it was incorrect because no one had uttered the exact phrase.

In this case, the Globe amended the headline shortly after publication to include a more detailed statement of fact, in particular, that Mi’gmaq students in Quebec could not ‘cross border for school.’ The NNC views that corrective action as appropriate.

The NNC pointed out that it is common practice for news headlines to refer to governments or well-known groups in this short-hand manner. Readers generally understand the reference to be to the authorities, not each resident. It is also common practice to paraphrase the statements and perspectives of officials in headlines with the verb “says,” as was the case in this example.

In another example, an operator of a local business was concerned that the headline of a Collingwood Today article was misleading because it did not name the pub where a staff member had tested positive for COVID. The complainant stated he had received numerous calls from curious patrons, and said the lack of specific detail in the headline left some readers to assume it referred to his establishment.

In reviewing the complaint and article in question, the NNC noted that the first line of the article referenced the specific establishment.

The NNC sympathizes with the challenges that businesses are facing during these times. We also recognize that journalism has the job of providing the community with important information, and that at times that mandate must be balanced against privacy concerns and perceived negative impact. The NNC found that balance was achieved in this case.

Standard journalistic practice requires that headlines are accurate and reflect the focus of the article. However, headlines are also limited in that their function is to grab readers’ attention in a concise and sometimes clever way.

In these cases, most of the concerns about the headlines were answered by information contained in the article that followed. While it is unfortunate that some readers may choose to read only the headline and miss out on important information in the article, that itself does not indicate a breach of standards.