The art of the headline

By Reade Brower | Jan 04, 2017

Reading a Newsweek article with the headline, “Melania Trump Orders Removal of Nearly 200 Year-old Tree from White House Lawn,” I realized headlines matter.

What followed was the story; a well-balanced piece that explained that this historic magnolia tree was diseased and that nothing could be done to save it. The story itself was fine; the reporting solid and complete, but the headline left a lot to be desired.

I came into the article with a chip on my shoulder; nothing surprises me about the president and first lady; I was figuring that the tree was blocking her view, and chopping it down was her prudent way to handle it. Luckily, I read the article, which laid out that the action Melania took was not only reasonable, but necessary; the tree was diseased and no other course of action was available.

In our sound-bite society, this headline is dangerous, unfortunate and unnecessary. What strikes me is that at many newspapers, the reporters do not write the headline to their stories; it is left up to their editor.

After reading the article, my conclusion was the headline was unfair to Melania, and to the reader. It evoked an emotion and a judgment, before I even read the first sentence, which was biased and did not serve readers.

I then googled “tree cut down - Melania,” and the headlines were very interesting.

Here were the ones on the first page:

-Magnolia tree ordered cut by Melania-

-Historic magnolia tree diseased-

-Iconic White House tree to be cut down-

-Melania Trump orders removal of damaged 200-year-old tree

-Melania Trump Orders Part of Historic White House Tree to be Cut Down-

-Melania Trump Demands 1800’s Tree Cut Down on White House Grounds-

-Melania Trump orders White House tree from 1800’s to be cut down-

-Chelsea Clinton Grateful as Melania Trump Orders Part of Historic White House Tree to Be Cut Down-

-Chelsea Clinton thanks Melania Trump for preserving part of the historic magnolia tree-

As you can see, the feelings evoked by the headlines can be wide-ranging, even in a news story. While all of these are correct, and you can’t argue with the words, you can see that Melania Trump “demanding” and “ordering” elicit a negative feeling when associated with an old and historic tree on the White House lawn. That feeling dissipates a little when the word “diseased” is added as a disclaimer. It is also lightened a little when the words “part of the tree” are inserted.

Then, a complete turnaround and a positive spin when you have Chelsea Clinton “thanking” and “grateful” to Melania for saving as much of the tree as she could.

Even though the facts didn’t change, the feelings did, dependent on the headline. All of the articles pretty much had similar facts, but the headline is more than a half-full versus half-empty argument, because of its influence on the reader.

The media should be better at presenting dispassionate headlines if it wants to be the trusted source and moderator of facts.

Out of all those headlines, a couple stood out as good: “Historic Magnolia Tree Diseased” is fine; it is factual, and allows the reader neutrality. The other one that is fine is “Iconic White House Tree to be Cut Down”; again, no emotion, just fact. The other seven were bad; what they had in common was using Melania’s name to hook in the potential reader and create emotion.

Using Chelsea Clinton’s quote as a headline was also an effort to sway public opinion; unlike the headlines that used “ordered” and “demanded” to create negative breeze, the words “grateful” and “thanks” set up the reader with a positive spin; if a liberal Democrat like Clinton says Melania has done something good, it must be so, is the implied message.

What we want, as Joe Friday of the old television series "Dragnet" used to tell us every week, is; “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”

Unless the mainstream media does that, its credibility will continue to be challenged.


“Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolatey café mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, Pa., and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle’s Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention and consumerism served with whipped cream on top. No wonder it costs so much.”

--- Sarah Vowell, author and journalist (b. 1969)

Comments (1)
Posted by: James Bowers | Jan 06, 2018 17:24

Interesting read, Reade.

How about this example? "Few midcoast legislators offer ....". It could be " Midcoast legislators show restraint"


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