Scanning media headlines after Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s statement about his racist birther crusade, one could reasonably come away thinking Trump had fully renounced and apologized for his years-long offensive campaign to delegitimize President Barack Obama. That was not the case -- Trump did not apologize and in fact blatantly lied in his 26-second remarks -- but media’s collective failure to accurately describe the event in their headlines may have left readers thinking Trump shut the door on his birtherism.
After building “suspense” that he was going to definitively address his racist accusations that President Obama was not born in the United States, Trump used his “circus” of an event to briefly say that “President Obama was born in the United States. Period" and to falsely accuse “‘Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008” of starting “the birther controversy.” Trump also erroneously claimed he had “finished” the controversy by forcing President Obama to release his birth certificate.
Online and print headlines largely failed to contextualize the event or note Trump’s lie about Clinton:
The New York Times:
The Los Angeles Times:
The Associated Press:
The New York Times did eventually change its headline to: “Trump Drops False ‘Birther’ Theory, but Floats a New One: Clinton Started It.”
Though the original headlines are not technically incorrect, the lack of context -- Trump’s brief comments after taking the media for a ride, his outright lie about Clinton starting birther rumors, and his false assertion that he had “finished” the birther controversy -- likely misled readers.
Conversely, The Huffington Post and The Washington Post got it right:
As former senior adviser to President Obama and current CNN contributor Dan Pfeiffer noted:
The Washington Post’s David Weigel wrote in a September 15 column that Trump, whom he called “the chyron candidate,” has “never failed to offer enough detail to fit in a headline or cable news chyron,” and that although most reporters make key distinctions and include crucial context “in the body of their stories,” context is often “elided” in “headlines or tweets.” Weigel pointed to the issue of the candidates’ disclosures of their medical information as an example:
That matters. If, like many people, you only glance at the news (yes, we know how long readers spend finishing articles), you come away with the impression that Trump is trading Clinton blow for blow and white paper for white paper. If either candidate released their entire medical history, or Trump revealed his entire tax returns, only a handful of voters might even read them. They'd depend on the press to find the story and the lede. Most coverage of campaigns needs to be shrunk to fit a chyron, anyway; Trump's innovation has been to preshrink the news.
Headlines matter in a Twitter-driven, fast-paced media landscape. Offering crucial details in articles -- but not in headlines -- may not be enough anymore, particularly in the age of Trump.