The Dangers of Shoddy Headline Writing

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on August 1, 2020

In the past decade, as media organizations have aggressively downsized in the face of a collapse in advertising revenues, copy editors have been among the first to get the ax. Misspellings, comma splices, rudimentary fact-checking and the art of good headline writing have all been seen as an unnecessary extravagance in times of ever-decreasing budgets. However, "non-partisan" fact-checker Politifact, demonstrated the importance of headline writing earlier this week with a shoddy headline on a Facebook post fact-check.

Shoddy Headline

It's a given that the Facebook post in question reaches a new high for historical illiteracy. However, the headline Politifact has put on its fact-check and is also inaccurate. It truncates a summary sentence lower in the piece that includes important context:

The United States was definitely not the only country that abolished slavery and was actually one of the last countries to abolish slavery in the Americas. [emphasis added]

This statement is accurate. The headline, which appeared on Politifact's site and its Facebook post promoting the fact check, is not accurate.

A selection from Wikipedia's timeline on the de jure abolition of slavery around the world. Countries banning slavery after 1865 and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution:

  • 1869: Portugal bans slavery in its territories and colonies.
  • 1873: Puerto Rico
  • 1874: Gold Coast
  • 1879: Bulgaria
  • 1882: Cambodia
  • 1886: Cuba
  • 1888: Brazil
  • 1894: Korea
  • 1895: Egypt
  • 1896: Madagascar
  • 1897: Zanzibar, Siam
  • 1899: Ndzuwani
  • 1900: Guam
  • 1902: Cameroon
  • 1905: French West Africa
  • 1906: China, Barotseland
  • 1915: British Malaya
  • 1919: Tanganyika
  • 1922: Morocco
  • 1923: Afghanistan
  • 1924: Iraq, Turkey
  • 1926: Nepal, British Burma
  • 1928: Sierra Leone
  • 1929: Persia
  • 1935: Ethiopia
  • 1936: Northern Nigeria, Bechuanaland
  • 1937: Bahrain
  • 1949: Kuwait
  • 1952: Qatar
  • 1958: Bhutan
  • 1960: Niger
  • 1962: Saudi Arabia, North Yemen
  • 1964: Trucial States
  • 1967: South Yemen
  • 1970: Oman
  • 1981: Mauritania

As you can see, the United States was hardly "one of the last countries to abolish slavery." Limiting it to the Western Hemisphere is more accurate, as only three countries in the Americas banned legal slavery after the United States. The fact check would've been improved with at least a mention that while technically illegal everywhere in the world, the practice still exists in many countries around the world—the United States isn't one of them.

Making sure that the headline on a story accurately reflected the content of the story was one of the most unappreciated jobs of copy editors. A good copy editor wouldn't have let this shoddy headline get through.

One comment on “The Dangers of Shoddy Headline Writing”

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“Assault weapon” and “hate speech” are similar in that both don’t mean anything specific and the term exists mainly to try to limit rights.

“I don’t want to ban guns, just ill-defined assault weapons.”

“I don’t want to ban speech, just ill-defined hate speech.”

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