August 7, 2019

This is the Poynter Institute’s daily newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, click here

Good morning. Controversy out of The New York Times over five words has been the buzz of the media world the past couple of days. So let’s dive into that to start.

NYTimes’ headline: debate or debacle?

There were two mass shootings over the weekend. On Monday, President Donald Trump addressed the nation. The New York Times, of course, covered that speech. Then five words caused a controversy.


That was the headline on the original Times story about the Trump speech. When FiveThirtyEight editor Nate Silver tweeted a photo of the front page, the backlash was swift and angry. Democratic presidential hopefuls Beto O’RourkeCory BookerKirsten Gillibrand and Bill de Blasio all took exception with the headline. So did many journalists — including CNN contributor Joan Walsh, who said she cancelled her subscription, and Soledad O’Brien, who called the headline “absurd.”

The firestorm was so strong that the Times did something papers normally don’t do: It changed the headline after the first edition. The new version read: “ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS.”

The Times put out a couple of statements about the original headline. One called it “bad” and another called it “flawed.” Times executive editor Dean Baquet told The Daily Beast, “It was written on deadline and when it was passed along for approval we all saw it was a bad headline and changed it pretty quickly.”

What, exactly, made the headline bad? After all, Trump actually urged unity against racism when he said, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.” You could argue that the headline is not, technically, wrong. Fox News’ Howard Kurtz, in fact, made that very point and said the Times “caved into” a “left-wing mob.”

But there’s more context and nuance to consider.


For starters, one of the stories under the headline didn’t match. Times staffers Michael Crowley and Maggie Habermann wrote:

“It seemed unlikely that Mr. Trump’s 10-minute speech, coming after one of the most violent weekends in recent American history, would reposition him as a unifier when many Americans hold him responsible for inflaming racial division. He took no responsibility for the atmosphere of division, nor did he recognize his own reluctance to warn of the rise of white nationalism until now.”

In addition, the rest of Trump’s speech did not address racism, instead focusing on other issues such as mental illness, the internet and even video games. That, combined with Trump’s extensive history of divisive remarks about race and immigration, made it a misleading headline that should have never made it into print.

While it’s easy to pound on The Times’ headline, we need to take just a moment to realize how incredibly difficult headline writing is. Take this Trump story. You have mass shootings that killed 31 people in two cities. Trump then gives a 10-minute speech about an epidemic that no one agrees on and no one can solve. And someone on a tight deadline is supposed to sum all that up in five to seven words that has to have just the right number of characters.

The Times headline wasn’t OK, but mistakes happen. To cancel a subscription for a headline that was ultimately changed is an overreaction.

As Baquet told the Daily Beast, “I understand the concern people have. Headlines matter. But I hope they read the coverage, which I will argue was strong.”


The media’s got a mean left

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet in 2018. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

The narrative about “the media” is that it’s pro-liberal. Many conservatives, led by Trump, love to toss around phrases such as “fake news” and “enemy of the people.” But now the media is starting to get pushback from an unlikely source: the left.

In an insightful piece on Politico by Michael Calderone and Alex Thompson, many liberals seem to have reached a boiling point with the media. The New York Times’ headline controversy was only the latest example of some liberals’ frustration.


Former senior advisor to Barack Obama and co-host of “Pod Save America” Dan Pfeiffer told Politico, “A vast swath of Democratic voters are pretty angry at the media. They see a racist liar in the White House and a media too afraid to call him a racist or a liar.”

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet spoke to Politico and defended his paper’s coverage, as well as the coverage of other news outlets when it comes to Trump.

“I’m going to argue that our coverage has been pretty rigorous and tough about Donald Trump and the administration,” Baquet said.

Yet as the Politico piece noted, the hashtag #CancelNYT was trending on Tuesday.

Other headlines were remarkably similar

Just for comparison, here’s how some other major newspapers handled the Tuesday headlines of Trump’s speech. It’s interesting to note some weren’t all that different than the Times’ original headline.





The (Bergen County, New Jersey) Record: TRUMP SPEECH SLAMS WHITE SUPREMACY

New York Daily News: EMPTY WORDS




Neither the Dayton Daily News nor the El Paso Times had a story about Trump’s speech on their front pages.

Your next forbidden word: shooter

Photojournalists photograph four pages of the Mueller Report on a witness table in April. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

In Tuesday’s newsletter, I wrote about Dallas Morning News photographer Tom Fox coming face-to-face with an active shooter in June. As I was writing the item, I wrote that Fox picked up his camera and started shooting. Then I realized how awkward that phrase was: “started shooting.”

Sue Morrow, editor of the National Press Photographers Association magazine, has long fought against using the word “shooter” to describe photographers even though she told me that it was David Hume Kennerly’s book entitled “Shooter” that got her interested in photojournalism.

In her latest newsletter for the NPPA, Morrow admits she has been guilty herself of using that word, but firmly believes the words “shooter” and “photojournalist” are “no longer acceptably interchangeable.”

Morrow — a veteran photo editor and designer who has worked at the Sacramento Bee, San Jose Mercury News, Tampa Bay Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Boston Globe —  is right. It’s time to drop that word when talking about photojournalists.

“The word is simply not useful any longer,” Morrow told me in an email. “Being a shooter was once a word/badge of honor. We interact with the public every day and our words matter now more than ever. You never know who you are talking to or the experiences they have had. Mindfulness is critical.”

NAHJ guidelines clash with traditional ideas

Mourners bring flowers to a makeshift memorial in Dayton. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The National Association for Hispanic Journalists released its standards for how to accurately and inclusively cover mass shootings. Its release includes three main concepts:

  • Have empathy and become educated
  • Put the spotlight on the victims and heroes, not the shooter
  • Next steps

The second part, about not writing about the shooter, includes this passage: “It is not appropriate to give a biography of the alleged killer, especially in a pardoning light. It is not necessary to mention that this alleged killer was a high school graduate and enrolled in college. It is inexcusable to mention the mental health issues the alleged killer might have been dealing with in an attempt to dismantle the reasoning behind this crime against humanity.”

First, news organizations can honor the victims and study the shooter, too. It’s not an either-or situation.

In addition, it’s important to learn — and to inform the public — as much as we can about the shooter without glorifying the shooter’s ideology. The more we know about shooters — including such things as upbringing, education and, yes, possible mental illness if a qualified professional can address that it played a role — the better prepared we might be to stop future shootings.

When asked about this, NAHJ president Hugo Balta told me in an email, “Although understanding the alleged shooter’s background may be important for police officers’ investigative purposes, it is not necessary to give the alleged killer any more notoriety for the heinous crime. A journalist’s job is to include as much relevant information as possible, but it is not meant to misguide people into believing the sole reason for the mass shooting happened because the alleged killer had a disability.”

No one wants to glorify shooters. No one wants to excuse or justify their behavior. No one is suggesting we don’t look into other factors for shootings, such as racism and guns. But to not report on the basic details of the shooter and to not look into all explanations is not only wrong, it’s irresponsible.

But Balta, a senior producer at MSNBC, said, “When news coverage focuses on the motive of the massacre, instead of the alleged shooter, newsrooms have a unique opportunity to educate and disarm misinformation, initiating an empowering conversation inclusive of the Latino community.”

Hot type

  • Trump will visit El Paso today. But ABC News reports that there is still a big problem over the last time he visited the border town back in February.
  • Remember when there was a big brouhaha over the top editor at The Markup, an investigative and data journalism site, being fired? Well, she’s back in charge. The New York Times’ Marc Tracy has all the details.
  • Poynter’s writing expert Roy Peter Clark on what he learned about writing from reading Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate who died Monday at the age of 88.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at

Upcoming Poynter training:

Want to get this briefing in your inbox? Sign up here.

Follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
Tom Jones

More News

Back to News


Comments are closed.

  • Joan Walsh and others with their shorts in a twist are essentially announcing, “I haven’t the faintest clue how the newspaper business works.”