How much in a headline? Enough to get the reader hooked, as long as it's accurate, in fact and intention

The complainant, Mike Fegelman, Executive Director of HonestReporting Canada, complained that a headline on a story of a Palestinian attack on a light rail station which killed a baby and one woman in Jerusalem was a “whitewash.” I disagreed.

COMPLAINT

As The Executive Director of HonestReporting Canada, you complained about the headline on a story of an attack on a light rail station in Jerusalem by a Palestinian. A baby girl and a woman were killed when the man drove his car into the station. The headline on the CBCNews.ca story was “Jerusalem mayor vows to calm city after baby girl killed.” The sub-head continued “Baby girl died after Palestinian motorist slammed into light rail station.”

You complained the headline was “misleading.” You said it “whitewashed Hamas’ murder of a 3-month-old Israeli baby and an Ecuadorean woman in Jerusalem, leading readers to wrongly conclude that it was a simple road traffic accident as the headlines did not make it clear that the incident was an attack, one that specifically saw intentional terror carried out against innocents.” You wanted the headline rewritten.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, the CBC News Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, replied to your concerns. He explained the headline writer thought it made the story more “poignant to include the fact that a baby girl was killed.” He assured you there was no intention to minimize the violence or intent of the attack:

That’s one reason the sub-headline provides a clue to the political dimension of the incident when it notes that the motorist was Palestinian. We would not report on someone’s race or ethnicity in a simple traffic accident unless it was crucial to the story.

The full AP article, of course, makes perfectly clear in a more detailed way about the broader range of issues arising from this incident.

He did not think the headline needed replacing.

REVIEW

Headlines have to serve a dual function in a limited number of words: they must accurately convey information about the story. They are also an enticement to get readers’ attention. Headline writers need to think about clarity, taste, the need to communicate clearly and quickly and, of course, accuracy and truth.

In this case, there is no dispute about the accuracy of the statement. I see nothing about it that is misleading either. Consider the context: The very place the story takes place, and the fact that the mayor is “vowing to calm the city” telegraphs something more than a car accident. And, unfortunately, again in context, the subhead is a further indication that it is part of an ongoing cycle of violence. The editorial choice of the writer to feature the death of a baby in the headline is a legitimate one. And the first paragraph of the piece leaves no doubt what has occurred:

Jerusalem’s mayor on Thursday called for a crackdown against a wave of Palestinian unrest, as police beefed up security after a Palestinian motorist with a history of anti-Israel violence slammed his car into a crowded light rail train station, killing a baby girl.

Your organization’s website calls this an attempt at whitewashing. That is your opinion. You may have preferred different words. There is nothing that indicates anything other than the straightforward reporting of events. The choices made in this case were legitimate, and in no way a violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman