Headlines don’t always tell the complete story

Staff Writer
Brownwood Bulletin
Gene Deason

By November, I will have been away from a career of editing newspapers that started almost 45 years ago, so I don’t react as irritably as I once did to errors in language or grammar. My emotional stability depends on letting go, because you can find improper usage everywhere.

You’ll find mistakes on social media, in emails, in advertising, in newspapers (sigh), and on the internet. I started out choosing to dismiss usage errors spotted in casual correspondence, concluding that no one cares whether “your” is used instead of “you’re,” or “there” is written instead of “their.” I do backslide occasionally, and will point out the error, but when I do, I feel bad about it. I make enough mistakes of my own.

I hate being condescending. That’s when you point out something that you assume the other person isn’t smart enough to know. Oops, I’m guilty once more.

The more important debate involves objectivity and accuracy in news reporting. That job has never been more difficult. Walking that fine line down the middle of the highway is a balancing act that today would challenge even the likes of a Walter Cronkite.

A lot of good work is being done in the field of journalism, but I’m seeing numerous instances of good work being soiled by the insertion of misleading headlines. Those are usually crafted by a different writer — probably an editor — who may or may not fully understand the premise of that article. As a result, a headline that doesn’t accurately reflect the information in the story becomes its lead-in. In some cases, when the headline is the only thing a reader sees because of a subscription pay-wall, that misleading headline is what’s remembered.

Earlier this month, one such story from a national news publication that’s being widely referenced provided a disappointing example. The story offered an overview of whether churches are adhering to health guidelines amid the pandemic.

Curiously, the headline reached a conclusion that wasn’t fully supported by the story that followed. “Churches Were Eager to Reopen: Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.” Those who bothered to read the story were no doubt puzzled how that headline could be used to summarize a story that found, “more than 650 cases have been linked to reopened religious facilities.”

Only 650 out of 3.8 million in the United States? That’s hardly a “major source.” Besides, the story, while it had some flaws, didn’t say that. It did say that significant spikes in COVID cases have been documented in 40 churches. Only 40 churches, since the pandemic started.

A handful of congregations initially refused to cancel in-person services, and their members were among the first to get sick. But those were a small fraction of more than 300,000 churches in the U.S. who are doing what should be done to protect their congregants and their communities.

It’s not accurate to paint those churches with the broad brush of a very few congregations who dismissed medical advice regarding safe practices. While these churches have been the most publicized for ignoring protocols, the vast majority of U.S. congregations have been quietly doing what needs to be done to protect people’s health.

Let’s not deceive ourselves. Even when protocols are followed as closely as possible, outbreaks could spread when any group gathers indoors for extended periods of time — whether it’s at a church, a business, a restaurant, a concert, or an athletic event.

Since all news is local, congratulations are in order to churches in the Brownwood area. Throughout this pandemic, most churches have been responsive to the spiritual, emotional, and physical health of the community. They haven’t acted in unison, but they have acted responsibly based on situations within their congregations and in this area.

Two days after the story first appeared, its online version was updated with the headline reading, “Churches Were Eager To Reopen; Now They Are Confronting Coronavirus Cases.”

This would have been even better: “Only 650 Virus Cases Linked to Church Reopenings.”

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at tgifcolumn@yahoo.com.