Correspondence with BBC Regarding Misleading Headlines

Blog: The Editors, 22 December 2011 | 2 Comments
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A number of our 'Eye on the News' entries highlight misleading news headlines which inaccurately represent the content of corresponding news reports. Accuracy and impartiality within headlines is crucial; the perception of the nature of a story is often shaped by its headline.

Many of the headlines on the BBC News website provide incorrect information about the stories they serve. On this page, we focus on four recent examples.

We contacted the BBC about the frequently misleading nature of their news headlines. Below are the justifications we received from the BBC (view full email), as well as our responses to their claims (view full email).

UN 'finds Iran nuclear arms bid' (View 'Eye on the News' entry) 6 November 2011 BBC News Website


Response from the BBC:

You describe the headline UN 'finds Iran nuclear arms bid' as being "inordinately inaccurate". The use of quotation marks is important in this headline; indeed it is a practice used widely on the BBC site and in other media.

These marks indicate that it is not the BBC making this claim, but that the claim is being made within the story, in this case by the UN. While this is a particularly difficult story to encapsulate in the 33 characters we have for our index headlines - and that is another issue to factor in here - we are satisfied that it is perfectly fair and accurate.

Our response:

Concerning the quote used for the headline, you have written that: 'These [quotation] marks indicate that it is not the BBC making this claim'. We are, of course, not suggesting that the headline indicates that the BBC itself has made the claim that the IAEA report would 'find Iran nuclear arms bid'. The headline does indeed imply that someone (in your response to us, you have attributed this to the UN) has made such a claim. This, in itself, is simply not the case. Far from representing an official UN position, the report refers to its sources as anonymous diplomats. Further, and importantly, the claim quoted in the headline did not appear in the report itself, and as such the headline does misrepresent the content of the report.

Libyans ask NATO to stay Longer (View 'Eye on the News' entry) 26 October 2011 BBC News Website

Response from the BBC:

Your claims about the Libyan NTC story are rather disingenuous. If David Cameron vetoes the European treaty, it is perfectly legitimate to talk about the "UK's veto".

Although you say the NTC was unelected - as was Col Gaddafi - it was recognised by a number of international bodies, including the UN and the African Union. So as chairman of the NTC, Mustafa Abdul Jalil was effectively in charge of the country and it is a perfectly legitimate journalistic device to use "Libyans" - or "Libya" as the headline read elsewhere - as a shorthand for the country's de facto government.

We do not agree that this headline "could have given the impression of people in their masses coming out and asking for Nato to remain".

Our response:

We find it disingenuous to attempt to draw parallels between David Cameron - who is, however arguably, democratically accountable and elected - and the unelected Libyan NTC.

Considering that Col Gaddafi had himself been recognised by the international community, it is ridiculous to claim the NTC to be representative on the basis that it was 'recognised by a number of international bodies', unless you are suggesting that a government's mandate should be granted it by foreign bodies rather than its own people?

As such, while in an international context it would be common practice to say that a decision by the prime minister would be a "UK" decision, the same should certainly not apply to the NTC.

Hague urges early Libya elections (View 'Eye on the News' entry) 1 September 2011 BBC Radio 4 'Today' Website

Response from the BBC:

The Today interview with William Hague did devote a fair amount of time to the timing of elections in Libya. Mr Hague made clear that the timescale had been set by the Libyans themselves and that the UK was keen for them to stick to that and not let the timing slide.

The key part of the interview follows Mr Hague's explanation of the NTC's previous agreement:

William Hague: ...that they would set up an interim government, that within eight months of that they would have elections.

Justin Webb: And you're holding them to that.

WH: I think they will hold themselves to that. Of course, we will want them to do that but I stress this is Libyan led, this is Libyan owned. This is not Iraq.

JW: Ah, so if they decided that because the place was such a mess and they had so many difficulties, and possibly Col Gaddafi isn't found, etc., etc., they decided to extend that deadline, then we would be understanding.

WH: No. We will want them to stick to their deadline.

We believe Mr Hague made it clear that the UK wanted early elections - ie sticking to the stated timetable - so that the democratic system itself, not necessarily the NTC, could be legitimised. The quote on your website [here] is extremely selective, as anyone who listened to the interview would realise.

Our response:

As the transcription you have included in your response makes clear, Hague certainly did not "urge" early elections. When the question was put to him if he would support them he concurred. We reject that our quote, which was taken in full from the interview, was selective. As you point out, it can be understood that Hague stated that the NTC should stick to their deadline. Yet there is no suggestion that Hague is urging early elections.

Iraq 'to request' troops to stay (View 'Eye on the News' entry) 10 June 2011 BBC News Website

Response from the BBC:

The same principle [of using quotation marks] applies to the Leon Panetta report, where the headline is: Iraq 'to request' US troops to stay. This tells readers that it is being reported that Iraq is asking for US troops to stay. The longer headline on the story itself and the first two paragraphs clearly attribute this statement:

Iraq will ask US troops to stay post-2011, says Panetta

Iraq will ask the US to keep troops in the country beyond an end-of-2011 pullout deadline, says the nominee to be the next US defence secretary. Outgoing CIA director Leon Panetta said he had "every confidence that a request like that will be forthcoming".

Again, we reject your claim that this headline misrepresents the truth.

Our response:

Concerning the inclusion of quotations, the issues we have raised are not, as you have suggested, with the nature of the commonly practiced use of quotes in a headline. Rather, we feel that there is a responsibility for any quotes used to accurately represent the content of the report.

You claim that your headline tells readers that it is being reported that Iraq is asking for US troops to stay. Reported by whom? Leon Panetta had 'every confidence' that it would happen. His claims were speculative: 'It's clear to me that Iraq is considering the possibility of making a request for some kind of [troop] presence to remain there [in Iraq]'. The headline misrepresents the nature of his remarks.

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Comments (2)

1. Agh23 December 2011 08:21

Nice work

2. Tony Hillier24 December 2011 16:49

'considering the possibility of making a request'

"Iraq might ask US Troops to stay: - may have been more accurate

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