Most regular newspaper readers understand headlines are designed to encapsulate the stories over which they appear. And unless the piece is on the commentary page, the headline shouldn't reflect the paper's opinion.
The kerfuffle that erupted last week over a New York Times headline suggests some high-profile politicians - including a few presidential contenders - may not be regular readers. Otherwise, they wouldn't have lambasted the newspaper and intimidated its executives into a rewrite more to their liking.
The story described a speech President Trump gave after shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Trump condemned racism and "white supremacy," and called for unity - an expected and appropriate response for a commander-in-chief to a tragedy of epic proportions. The headline, following the ages-old journalistic tradition, thus read: "Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism."
Though the headline accurately summarized the news story, the blowback was immediate and extreme. The most stark example was a tweet by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the firebrand U.S. representative from New York, who called it "a reminder of how white supremacy is aided by - and often relies upon - the cowardice of mainstream institutions." She and others objected to the headline because they are convinced, given his own past activity on Twitter, that Trump couldn't possibly be sincere. His detractors then began calling for a boycott of the Times, and demanding that Executive Editor Dean Baquet be sacked.
But it's not up to a newspaper to analyze a subject's probity or intent on the news pages; such editorializing is reserved for the op-ed pages. Though the Times might have initially chosen more palatable phrasing, the alternative for the rest of the press run - "Assailing Hate, But Not Guns" - came within a hair's breadth of rendering an opinion. If guns were not touted in the speech, those words constitute a judgment, not a precise synopsis of what was said.
On many occasions, a Tahlequah Daily Press headline has been taken directly from a story, but the words in big, bold print were far more disconcerting to some readers than the smaller text of the story. Headlines over controversial material tend to prompt one of two conclusions: Either the staff is trying to sell papers with a "sensationalized" headline, or it agrees with the message put forth by the person, group or document forming the basis of the report.
Of course, those in the print industry want to sell papers; they wouldn't be in business if they didn't. But a headline that merely details a news story is not sensational or opinionated; it is benign. That's true even if the headline relays the viewpoint of someone quoted in the story, as long as it's not the opinion of the paper itself. Too many people just scan the headlines, but if they read the stories in their entirety, they might understand the purpose of the headline is to draw them into the story.
Headline mistakes are made, too. In most cases, the journalist with the byline doesn't write the headline; an editor does that, pulling from the first paragraph, or the "lede." A headline may be wrong because the writer didn't put the most important elements in the lede, or erred in reporting. Or the headline writer or editor misread the text, or simply fell victim to human error.
Good newspapers always hold to the fire the feet of politicians, because the "Fourth Estate" is charged with doing so by the Constitution itself. That watchdog role, particularly in recent years, has gotten many media labeled tools of the liberal establishment. It's ironic that by caving in to pressure from radical squeaky wheels on social media, the Times hoisted itself by its own petard and gave validity to that claim.
Newspapers can't please everybody, and sometimes, they please nobody. But they shouldn't second-guess themselves just because political pressure is brought to bear.