That’s not what I meant, but it is what I wrote: The perils of not rereading your headlines

In the state of Wisconsin, we have an interesting few weeks after our midterm elections. Democrats won both the governor’s office and the attorney-general’s race while both branches of the State Legislature remained in the hands of the Republicans.

Before the power of the governor and attorney general transition from Republican to Democrat, legislative leaders called a lame-duck session to make some “last-minute adjustments” to the rights and responsibilities of the offices they will no longer control. (Side Note: The fact that one party is doing this or not doing it is inconsequential to me. I don’t like it because it seems hypocritical, given the rage that Republicans expressed when Democrats tried a similarly dumb session in 2010 as power was shifting. Both of these things are inconsequential to the point I’m making, but I figured it was fair to toss that out there.)

After a late-night/early-morning marathon session, the House and Senate voted mainly along party lines to do get some things done that they felt they couldn’t get done once the transition of power was complete. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel as done a great job of covering each iteration of this from top to bottom, but it appears their efforts might have been undone with a lousy headline:


The story clearly points out that the lawmakers did reject a bill to protect pre-existing conditions. It also makes clear that the lawmakers did scale back Democrats’ power in those aforementioned offices. However, that’s not what the headline says. It appears to say that there is one bill that was rejected and that bill would have protected pre-existing conditions AND scaled back Democrats’ power.

Pretty much anyone following this would have seen that change as a big deal, because it would have been a 180-degree flip for the Republicans in the Legislature. Pretty much anyone following this would have ALSO figured that there was a better chance of outgoing Republican Gov. Scott Walker riding into the chamber at 3 a.m. on a unicorn, before leading both sides in an impromptu version of the gang dance from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video than that flip occurring.

That said, “Aw, you know what I meant” isn’t a legal or professional defense against a mistake like this. If you don’t believe me, reconsider our discussion of this gem:

(They never had this program when I was in school…)

Here are three simple tips for making sure you don’t goof up a headline:

  1. RTFS: This stands for a number of things, but “Read The FULL Story” is probably the least offensive version of it. In most cases, you run into problems when you only read a few paragraphs and figure you can nail the headline. In some cases, that’s true, such as a bare-bones inverted-pyramid story on a baseball game. However, most things are more nuanced than “who beat whom and what was the score” so make sure you give yourself the chance to read through the whole thing before you start writing the headline.
  2. Have someone ELSE who isn’t involved in the story read the headline: Many problems in writing come from a writer who has a lot of knowledge of a topic assuming too much about what other people might know. Other problems stem from the “you know what I meant” syndrome that writers fall back on after they fall on their keys in public. I’d bet that most people who read the Pratt Tribune didn’t think the kids were really getting a “first hand job” either, but again, that’s why a second (or third or fourth) set of eyes on your writing will help make things better.
  3. Focus on helping your readers. The first time I read this headline, I thought, “Hey, maybe all the attention got to them.” Then, I read the story and realized that I was wrong, which made me angry at the situation and angry at the headline writer. Part of it felt like it might have been just a late-night goof, but the other part of it felt like, “Just put a headline on this thing and people will read it anyway.”

    We usually get ticked off at click-bait heads like, “How to make $1 million in a day!” or “You’ll never guess how good THIS STAR looks after a stint in prison.” However, we’re pretty good at this point about ferreting out the clearly weaselly heads and we kind of get over it. In a case like this, it’s a trusted source that looked bad, and that can do more damage than a particularly hyperbolic head in a lousy publication.


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