Reporters and editors need to be critical when writing the words that readers focus on most of all.

By Sylvia Stead for the Globe and Mail

They’re just a few words at the top of the articles, but headlines attract more than their share of complaints. Readers complain that they are too political or not political enough. They fail to tell the whole story, they miss the point of the story, or the tone is really off.

On Wednesday, I had a complaint about this headline: “Russia likely responsible for attack on aid convoy, U.S. says.” The reader complained that the word “likely” revealed speculation. I told him that The New York Times Service article said that Obama administration sources think there is a “high probability” the Russians were responsible. So the speculation is from government officials, not the headline writer – and I think the headline was accurate and fair.

But on this newspaper headline about the American election, other readers rightly complained it played way too straight and needed honesty, not the parroting of a lie: “Trump faults Clinton for birther debate.” The online headline was much better: “Trump concedes Obama born in U.S., falsely says Clinton started controversy.”

“Your headline to this article perpetuates the falsehood that the article then states is another false conspiracy. The media tend to highlight verbatim what [Donald] Trump says in headlines and only briefly denunciates what he’s doing later in articles. A better headline would have been: ‘Trump peddles another false conspiracy.’”

Continue reading this story on the Globe and Mail website, where it was first published.

Sylvia Stead is the Public Editor of the Globe and Mail.