Time For A Social Media Headline Writers Ethics Panel

Since the headline is probably too meta, it refers to a bloggers ethics panel:

For those coming in late, the “blogger ethics panel” joke is about how for years concern troll journalists tried to applied ethical norms and disclosure standards which didn’t exist anywhere in the universe to bloggers.

Last week, NBC was pilloried for using the ‘critics charge X does Y‘ social media headline, when, in fact, the reality is that X did do action Y:


Here’s another example from California:

Ammar Campa-Najjar is trying to unseat an indicted Republican member of the House. This indicted Republican released one of the filthiest, most racist attack ads ever made against Campa-Najjar, one that has been condemned nearly everywhere.

So how does the Times (and nearly every other media outlet) report this? By giving free publicity to the Republican extremist:

  • The Republican’s name is in the headline, not Ammar Campa-Najjar’s.
  • The Republican’s photo is at the top of the article not Ammar Campa-Najjar’s.
  • The Republican’s name begins the lede, not Ammar Campa-Najjar’s.
  • The lede repeats salacious innuendo against Ammar Campa-Najjar.
  • Campa-Najjar isn’t mentioned until graf 2 in which outrageous lies are directly quoted from the ad without any context and comment.
  • Graf 3 attempts to set context but is incompetently written, overly packed with nearly unreadable detail, some of which appears to support the lies of graf 2.
  • You have to wait until graf 4 before you start to learn that everything — everything — implied by the first 3 grafs is uncalled for, misleading, a total lie, and wrong.

This entire article could easily have been written to minimize free publicity for the Republican. But it wasn’t, it was written with emphasis on the Republican. In short the Times just compounded the outrage.

Greg Sargent took it a little farther (boldface mine):

There is little doubt that a deceiver as prolific and innovative as Trump grasps — whether instinctively or consciously — that those getting news from social media and on mobile devices often read no further than headlines or tweets, and that the transmitting out of disinformation that gets amplified in headlines and news feeds helps him exploit this facet of the shifting information landscape.

“The importance of headlines is arguably even greater now in the social media era, because a lot of people are in passive consumption mode,” Craig Silverman, the media editor at BuzzFeed News, told me…

“When people see stuff on social media, what they often see is only the headlines,” Silverman said. “If you are restating claims that are false or misleading in headlines, you are spreading misinformation. And social media is pouring gasoline on that fire.”

This is a crucial insight, and while things have gotten better in recent months, the problem remains one that plenty of traditional journalists and news organizations still refuse to take seriously enough. You constantly see headlines on news organizations’ websites that blare forth a politician’s false, dubious or unsupported claims without informing readers that those claims are, well, false or dubious or unsupported. Often it requires reading deep into a story to discover a corrective, if there is a corrective at all.

This is part and parcel of a broader problem, in which too many newspaper editors and television producers still continue to fear that if they forcefully — and prominently, right in tweets and headlines — call out Trump’s lies for what they are, they will somehow come across as biased or lacking in objectivity…

But this rigs the game in Trump’s favor: One cannot ever conclusively prove whether Trump is intentionally lying, as opposed to just delusional or hopelessly uninformed. Yet if Trump repeats a falsehood over and over after it has been debunked, it is obviously deliberate deception; if news organizations refrain from calling this out as such, they are failing to accurately describe what is right there in plain sight.

I can understand in print headlines, where sometimes space needs to be filled, using phrases like ‘critics charge’, but there’s never a reason to do that online. It really shouldn’t be hard, in the example above, to remove the “Critics charge that”–this was a mass purge. It actually happened!

We really do need a social media headline writers panel.

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