Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

BBC headlines are ‘mostly guff’

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One of the things that irritates me a lot about the BBC news website is its tendency to use quotes as headlines. That is, where all or part of the headline is simply a quote of what someone else has said. These are some examples:

Councils ‘have £13bn in reserves’
Data scheme ‘as good as ID cards’
Spending cuts ‘to fund schools’
Deficit cut ‘could take longer’
New runways ‘not the answer’
Trains fiasco ‘to cost taxpayer’
Starbucks ‘planning changes to tax policy’
Guernsey girl’s crash death ‘a tragic accident’
Motorist ‘hits speed of 136mph’
Bears ‘defecate in woods’

Actually, I made the last one up, but you get the point.

There’s nothing wrong per se with the headline quote. It has two main purposes, firstly, when the quote itself is the story (eg, “Pope says ‘I am not a Catholic'”) and secondly to indicate that the statement is a matter of opinion rather than necessarily being a fact. Up to a point, that’s an established journalistic tradition, and for those who understand it then there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with it.

The problem I have with the BBC is its tendency to over-use the headline quote, and use it in a way which is itself misleading. Here, for example, is how the BBC captioned two very similar stories today:

Stuart Hall ‘innocent of charges’
Ex-news boss denies raping girl

Both of these are stories related to a well-known person who has been accused of sexually-related crimes. I make no comment at all on whether either of them are actually guilty or not; that’s for a court to decide and I have absolutely no evidence available to me that would enable me to make any even remotely informed decision. But the first caption strongly suggests that Stuart Hall is, in fact, innocent, or at at least there is strong evidence that he is, while in the second case we just have someone denying guilt – which, of course, is what people accused of crimes often do. You have to click through the link to the actual story to discover that the person quoted as calling Hall “innocent” happens to be his lawyer, someone who is, of course, paid to say precisely that. So why not caption the link “Stuart Hall denies accusations”, or “Stuart Hall insists he is innocent”?

Apart from the fact that a lot of quoted headlines would simply be more informative if they were written without the quotes, it seems to me that the BBC is far too willing to use quotes that give a far from neutral impression of the content of the story. And that, quite simply, is bad journalism.