There are occasional examples of unintended humor in headlines like  "KIDS MAKE NUTRITIOUS SNACKS" or QUEEN MARY HAVING BOTTOM SCRAPED, OR 
  
but unfortunately in many other cases misleading headlines can be damaging in their influence on public opinion.

We know instinctively that the headlines in a newspaper influence our choice of which articles to read but we are not always aware of the extent to which the headline influences the way in which we interpret the article or even remember it. As first impressions do color our impressions ethical problems can result from even slightly nuanced misleading words or phrases in a headline especially about subjects that are emotionally charged.

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Although this article details correspondence with the Haaretz senior editor, his paper is not the only medium guilty of misleading headlines. A typical example: on November 5, 2014 when "the Australian" headlined realistically "Two killed in hit and run terror attack on Jerusalem tram stop" the BBC headlined it “Driver hits pedestrians in East Jerusalem” creating the impression it was a routine traffic accident.


Even though the recent B'tselem report on the 2014 Gaza war clearly claimed that both Israel and Hamas violated international law, Haaretz omitted the reference to Hamas and created the false impression that B'Tselem accused only Israel in its January 29, 2015 headline


Because I considered this to be a serious breach of ethical journalism I sent the following to the letters editor Haaretz with a copy to the Israel press Council: 

"Referring to the latest B'Tselem report, Haaretz on January 29 carried the headline "IDF broke international law in dozens of Gaza war strikes, Israeli rights group says"

The Israel Press Council rules of professional ethics provides unambiguously that a headline shall not be misleading and that mistakes, or inaccuracies must be corrected speedily and with the appropriate emphasis relative to the original publication.

The above headline is MISLEADING in that it creates the impression that B'Tselem claims that ONLY the IDF broke the law whereas the B'Tselem report stated clearly that Hamas broke international law by firing on Israeli civilian targets from populated areas of the Gaza Strip thereby undermining the most basic rule of humanitarian law.

The headline should have been worded "Israeli rights group says both IDF and Hamas broke international law"

Haaretz is accordingly requested to abide by the IPC code of ethics by speedily correcting the error with the appropriate emphasis relative to the original publication

Please acknowledge this email

Thank you

Maurice Ostroff" 

On February 1 the following reply was received from Ehud Ein-Gil Senior editor Haaretz 
Dear Mr. Ostroff,
Thank you for your comments. I do not agree that the headline is misleading. An editor may decide according to her or his professional standards which part of the article is the most important, and highlight it in the headline.

Let us take for example the following headline, that had been published less than two weeks before the one in question: Hamas welcomes ICC probe into possible war crimes in Palestinian territories. (http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/1.637615)

According to your logic, this headline too is misleading in that it creates the impression that ICC decided to probe war crimes in the Palestinian territories only, while the article says also that - Israel rejected the court's Friday decision as hypocrisy and the U.S. State Department said it was "a tragic irony that Israel, which has withstood thousands of terrorist rockets fired at its civilians and its neighborhoods, is now being scrutinized by the ICC." In both cases, the editor chose to highlight in the headline what seemed to him or her more important and interesting: in one case it was the war crimes committed by Palestinians, and in the second - the war crimes committed by Israelis. In both cases the editorial decision was legitimate, professional, sensible, responsible and not misleading.
Sincerely,
Ehud Ein-Gil
Senior editor Haaretz 

On February 3, 2015 I replied as follows 
Dear Mr. Ein-Gil
Senior editor Haaretz

Thank you for your prompt reply. Once again you and I have to agree to disagree. But that is not important. WHAT IS IMPORTANT IS WHAT YOUR READERS THINK. And I challenge you to publish this letter so as to allow them the opportunity to make their own judgments instead of using the power of your privileged position to impose your judgment on them

After all, you cannot deny that the headline in question is a half-truth, which, according to Benjamin Franklin "is often a great lie".

The facts are that
a) Your headline stated "IDF broke international law in dozens of Gaza war strikes, Israeli rights group says"

b) The headline omitted to mention that the B'Tselem report to which it referred, stated unambiguously that Hamas also broke international law

c) According to the Washington Post of March 10, 2014 roughly six in 10 people read only headlines adding that in truth, that number is almost certainly higher, since plenty of people won't admit to just being headline-gazers.

d) You state "An editor may decide according to her or his professional standards which part of the article is the most important, and highlight it the headline." Hence according to Haaretz professional editorial standards it is unimportant for those of your readers who read only headlines to be denied the highly relevant information that B'Tselem accuses Hamas of war crimes.

e) Studies carried out at the School of Psychology, University of Western Australia and School of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol on "The Effects of Subtle Misinformation in News Headlines" prove not only that misleading headlines result in misconceptions in readers who don't read beyond the headlines, they also influence readers who do read the entire article.

As incoming evidence will always be weighted and interpreted in light of information already received, a headline can serve to bias processing towards or away from a specific interpretation. Moreover, correcting the misinformation conveyed by a misleading headline is a difficult task. A misleading headline can thus do damage despite genuine attempts to accurately comprehend an article. As a certain motivation and effort is required to engage in such strategic processing, headline effects may be also affected by the reader's pre-existing attitudes .

The above study clearly ephasizes the huge responsibility resting on the shoulders of editors if ETHICAL considerations are to be factored into your professional editorial decisions.

The study also showed that misleading headlines can lead to misconceptions and misinformed behavioral intentions and that the practical implications of the research are clear: News consumers must be made aware that editors can strategically use headlines to effectively sway public opinion and influence individuals' behavior

This letter will be made public as will the considered response I hope to receive from you

Sincerely
Maurice Ostroff 

On February 3 , Ehud Ein-gil replied 
Dear Mr. Ostroff,
Thank you for your response, which has artfully ignored the opposite example I gave in my reply.

The question in my opinion is this: do our readers know that Hamas - for launching rockets against civilian population - is guilty of war crimes?

The answer is YES, since they not only heard it from almost every Israeli spokesperson commenting on the last confrontation in Gaza, but they read it in Haaretz too. As early as July 18, 2014, the Haaretz editorial said that "Israel boasts of the fact that in contrast to Hamas, which commits war crimes by firing at a civilian population, it doesn't deliberately target civilians or children" (http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.605869).

Sincerely,
Ehud Ein-Gil  

On February 3,  I replied as follows 
Dear Mr Ein-Gil,

I am not sure what you mean by "artfully". I did not comment on your old headline about Hamas welcoming the ICC decision as I didn't think it worth entering into a discussion about your incorrect interpretation of what you call my "logic". By the same token would it be appropriate to say that you "ARTFULLY" ignored B'Tselem's statement about Hamas war crimes?.

The question is NOT whether your readers know from other sources that Hamas committed war crimes. The real question is why you refuse to give your readers an opportunity to judge for themselves whether your headline was misleading by publishing my letter?

Your argument is unacceptable in that you say it is permissible to omit information in subsequent headlines because Haaretz has already mentioned (not in a headline), previously that Israel claimed that Hamas commits war crimes.

Bearing in mind what I wrote about the effect of headlines, I ask in all seriousness, has Haaretz ever headlined that B'Tselem (or Haaretz for that matter) acknowledges that Hamas is guilty of war crimes?

In view of the huge responsibility that you bear, I urge you and members of your staff to observe the Israel Press Council rules of professional ethics and to read the study I mentioned in my previous letter. It is available at
http://websites.psychology.uwa.edu.au/labs/cogscience/Publications/Ecker.2014IP.JEPA.pdf


Sincerely
Maurice Ostroff
 
 




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