Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Missoulian and Rick Hill -- an old-fashioned "Montana headline"

Wouldn't it be nice if all headlines were either accurate -- or if not, at least unintentionally funny like the one at right? When I started Montana Headlines some years ago, I arrived at the name in part because I had been dismayed by some of the headlines that appeared in my local Billings Gazette. At times, I felt that even when a news article was fair and balanced (if I may use the term), the headline would often be skewed. This is important because it colors the way an article is read, and to someone taking a quick glance at the paper who doesn't have time to read the whole article, the headline is the takeaway message.

There was a doozy of an example in a recent Charles Johnson article posted at the Missoulian:

Rick Hill has been campaigning to be Montana's governor for years

When the editors write a blazing headline like that, I'm thinking that I'm going to learn that Hill has been on the road for at least the last 4 years. No, the truth is more prosaic than that. Johnson wrote this in the body of the article: "For nearly two years – since the Monday following the November 2010 election – Rick Hill has been running for governor"

Out of a lengthy, factual, and even-handed feature article (would we expect anything else from Johnson?) about Rick Hill, the editors came up with that headline? For starters, it isn't even true. Most reasonable people would expect at least two full years (i.e. more than one) to have gone by in order to claim that someone has been doing something "for years." Most reasonable people would in reality probably expect more than two, but we can give the benefit of the doubt.

Today, beginning the slog of fundraising and campaigning shortly after the last election is pretty standard for a major office like governor. It hasn't been common in Montana in the past, but we'd best get used to it, and it certainly isn't newsworthy.

This doesn't mean I like long campaigns, mind you. Here is what I wrote back in February of 2007:

Political Armageddon comes to Montana: Yes, it's true. Monica Lindeen has started campaigning for the State Auditor position 3 1/2 months after the last election. You heard it right -- State Auditor. Interminable campaigns are annoying enough when it is for offices like, well, the President of the United States of America. But are Montanans really going to have a stomach for this?

I don't recall who the Missoulian endorsed for State Auditor in 2008, but I'll bet that just like the Billings Gazette did, the Missoulian editors endorsed Lindeen. Were there articles in the Missoulian where the headlines screamed that Lindeen had been campaigning for State Auditor "for years?" Doubt it.

(Update: the headline online has changed to "Governor's race: Rick Hill seeks major economic, regulatory reforms.” I don’t know what the final print edition headline was. Maybe the headline I saw was just the temporary work of a lowly night-shift editor. But it was around long enough to be aggregated.)

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