Sunday, February 06, 2005

Dispatch Explains Iraqi Vote Headline

Last Sunday, the Columbus Dispatch ran a front page headline of "Violence Mars Election" covering the Iraq election. This week, the paper's editor, Benjiman Marrison, agrees that it didn't capture the essence of the elections and gives a timeline explaining how the headline came about.

At 10:30 p.m. last Saturday, we had to send our first-edition pages. It’s our earliest deadline all week, necessary because we print about 100,000 more papers on Sundays than we do the other days of the week.

The Iraqi voting had not begun. The polls wouldn’t open for another half-hour. Our headline: ‘‘New hope amid fear."

The only reports out of Iraq gave thin details of the U.S. Embassy being bombed in the Green Zone in Baghdad, and of officials anxiously awaiting the polls’ opening.

At midnight, our second edition was due. By then, Iraqis had been voting for about an hour. There was some violence, but it was limited.

We stuck with the same headline. We looked for better, fresher photos, but none were available from any of the many services we subscribe to.

At 1:30 a.m., our final edition was due. There were reports of growing violence, including an explosion that killed an officer. That indicated to us that the carnage everyone had predicted was going to materialize. Live television coverage did not show people lining up to vote. Most reports were of people ‘‘trickling" into the polling places.

Democratic elections were being held, but it was impossible to know whether the turnout would be overwhelming or more akin to an off-year election in the United States.

Based on the escalating violence, we changed the headline to ‘‘Violence mars voting."

It is accurate, as violence did mar the elections. But in the end, we and the world learned, the violence was small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

We made a decision based on the facts we had, and it turned out to be a bit inflated.

For those who think the paper was purposely trying to portray the event in a negative light, he points out the headline from Monday's edition.
Proof otherwise could be found on Monday’s front page. The headline ‘‘Undeterred" captured the day. The Iraqis who voted were phenomenally brave. The sight of men and women heading to the polls, children in tow, was historic and heartwarming.
I thought Marrison's explanation and timeline was very insightful. It shows how deadlines and incomplete data can sometimes lead to headlines and stories that out of date by the time they hit the doorstep.

Newspapering is an art, not a science. Despite the best-laid plans and good intentions, the outcome isn’t always exactly what we want or you expect.

The good news is that on those infrequent occasions when we fall short, we have another shot the next day.