Commentary: Bad headlines can ruin a good story

If it happens once, it happens too often. But happen, it does: A reporter writes a balanced, nuanced story, but the hours, days or weeks of painstaking work to produced it are wiped away by an inapt headline that an editor or page designer spent perhaps five minutes writing.

It drives reporters mad because they often receive the agitated phone calls and e-mails from those who find the headline (that they didn't write) slanted, misleading or downright inaccurate, even though their story was none of those things. And the newspaper, rather than getting credit for even-handed reporting, gets slammed for "sensationalism" or bias.

Here's the truth: Given the circumstances under which most headlines are written, readers rely too heavily upon them as a gauge of a newspaper's editorial intent; however, when the work stacks up, headline writers sometimes forget the delicacy required to properly frame an article and the extent of their influence over a reader's perception of the entire story package. This incongruency probably is attributable to the fact a headline is the last thing we write but, often, the first thing a reader notices.

Thus, we must be vigilant to prevent the "last thing we write" from becoming an afterthought.

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