A dangerous kind of ambiguity
The readers' editor on ... a justified complaint about an indefensible headline
Saturday May 29, 2004
Among my recent emails was one from Haifa in Israel which came quickly to the point: "Sir, the Guardian is liar of the month in April 2004 at Take-a-Pen." Take-a-Pen, I discovered, is a lobby group founded by Endre Mozes in late 2000. He set it up to try to counter the effects of the adverse media coverage Israel was receiving after the beginning of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
In his email to me Mr Mozes explained that it was a headline in Guardian International, the edition of the paper that he read during a week in Paris, that attracted his attention. It read: "Hungary foils 'Jewish' terror plot."
On his website, he reproduces the headline and part of the page of April 14 on which it appeared, with this introduction: "On April 13, the Hungarian police arrested three Arabs suspected of planning to attack a Jewish museum in Budapest. The editor of the printed version of the Guardian international edition ... Nick Thorpe, writes that a 'Jewish' terror plot was foiled."
Mr Mozes' email also copied to me a letter from Maurice Ostroff, said to have been sent to the Guardian earlier. It had not reached me. All my correspondence is logged and I have been unable to find any trace of it. The letter says: "My first reaction on reading the bold headline 'Hungary foils "Jewish" terror plot' ... was increased resentment against those troublesome Jews now plotting terror attacks in Hungary.
"Only after reading the entire article did I realise that the headline was completely misleading. The plot was not by Jews but against Jews. A typical case of the victim misrepresented as the culprit.
"Admittedly, on rereading the headline, I became aware of the quotation marks surrounding the word Jewish."
To pause for a moment here - Nick Thorpe is not the editor of the international edition. He did not write the headline. He is the journalist who filed the report from Budapest. Nowhere in it were the events he described referred to as a Jewish terror plot. I find it hard to believe that Mr Ostroff had to read the entire article to realise that the headline was misleading. Nick Thorpe's first paragraph says: "A possible plot to blow up a new Holocaust museum in Budapest appeared to have been foiled yesterday when detectives arrested three men, a Palestinian and two Syrians, on suspicion of planning an attack." That appears to me to resolve immediately any ambiguity in the headline.
Mr Ostroff's email continues: "I believe you will agree that (a) headlines have a major influence on readers' impressions. A great number of readers skim their newspaper headlines without reading the entire articles; (b) this headline creates the definite impression that a plot by Jews, not against Jews, has been foiled; (c) few readers would have paid attention to the quotation marks around the word 'Jewish' and even for those who did notice them, the significance is unclear."
We have covered this ground before, when the word "massacre" appeared in quotation marks in a headline about Jenin. On that occasion it was supported by remarks by a Palestinian quoted in the accompanying report. On the present occasion the headline appeared to be saying exactly the opposite of what the text of the story said.
I agree with almost everything Mr Ostroff said in the second part of his email, quoted above. The headline is indefensible and should not have appeared. I would have come to that conclusion had Mr Ostroff's email reached me earlier. In the circumstances it would be churlish to complain about the overstated presentation on the Take-a-Pen website, which monitors and comments upon media coverage in 15 languages. But, "liar"?
The headline to which the website rightly objected appeared only in the international edition. It did not appear in any edition of the Guardian printed in the United Kingdom. It did not appear on any report on the Guardian's own website.
The headline was not written by anyone on the staff of Guardian International. It was written by a subeditor for the main paper but changed after the page had been sent on to the next stage before publication. The page was withdrawn and a new version was then sent with the headline: Hungarian police foil terror plot. This is the headline you will find on the Guardian website. Guardian International, working at maximum pressure near its early deadline, picked up and printed the earlier page. It had no warning that a significant revision had been made. Until the system is improved it will remain a recipe for disaster. This time, with a little goodwill, some of the damage may be repaired. See: http://www.take-a-pen.org/.
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