What would you say President Clinton said about race in that big speech he gave recently in San Diego? Perhaps your answer would depend on what newspaper you read.
Let's say that you read the headlines only (which wouldn't be unusual). Also, let's say you live in Atlanta. Here's what your newspaper told you: "Clinton Hails Affirmative Action. He throws down the gauntlet in California."
But what if you live in Minneapolis? Then you read this: "Hoping to heal wounds of racism, Clinton brings issue to forefront. He wants today's speech to prompt national discussion."
These quite different headlines raise the murky notion of objectivity -- an issue that puts many readers and many journalists on opposite sides of a wide gulch. Over here are the reader-critics. They say, "You slant the news." They complain, "I'm tired of your spin." Over there are the journalists. They say, "We don't shape the news, we merely report it." They insist: "We're just holding up a mirror."
Who's right? A look at how various newspapers handle one story offers some clues. The new Newseum in Arlington, a feast of media exhibits, makes it easy to do such comparisons with its display of same-day front pages. A visit last Sunday showed differing headline treatments of the president's speech from the day before:
"Clinton sets a dialogue about race. Pledges to draft specific plan over next year." The Boston Globe.
"Affirmative Action Right, Clinton Says. President opens racial dialogue." The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
"President Urges One America.' In college address, Clinton opens discussion of race." The Baltimore Sun.
"Defending Affirmative Action, Clinton Urges Debate on Race. Calls Diversity Essential and Issues Warning on Resegregation." The New York Times.
"Clinton: We must not resegregate.' President defends affirmative action, launches campaign against racism." The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.
"Clinton calls for mending racial divides. He urged whites, blacks and ethnic groups to end prejudice. His speech began a one-year effort." The Philadelphia Inquirer.
"Clinton Urges Racial Dialogue. The president's speech fails to offer concrete solutions, critics say." The Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore.
"Clinton Urges U.S. Effort to Defuse Racism." The Denver Post.
"Clinton Sounds Call for Dialogue on Race. President Argues for Affirmative Action." The Washington Post.
"Clinton defends preferences for colleges, hiring. Critics of affirmative action find little to cheer in the president's bully-pulpit speech." The Washington Times.
None of these is "wrong" or "right," "accurate" or "inaccurate." But surely the reader of a headline saying the president "urges racial dialogue" or "declares a plan to battle racism" comes away feeling differently about the speech than does the one who reads that the president "defends preferences for colleges."
On the one hand, the president "throws down the gauntlet," on the other, he is "hoping to heal wounds of racism" and "calls for mending racial divides." Here, Clinton, in his speech "failed to offer concrete solutions;" there, he "pledges to draft specific plan over next year."
There's no question that part of "spin" or "slant" is what the reader brings to the headline. One reader would charge the Star Tribune in Minneapolis with softness, naivete, missing the news. Another would find Atlanta's headline inappropriately adversarial, the Washington Times' use of "preferences" loaded.
Writing headlines is difficult and delicate work. Moreover, a headline utterly beyond reproach as to objectivity is probably one so dull no eye will rest on it. But some headlines are clearly more "straight down the middle" (The Post's headline on this story seemed a good example), while others give those reader-critics good reason to complain about slant.
Headlines are just starker examples of what's true throughout the paper: Every choice a journalist makes affects the way news comes through to readers. Painstaking care with these countless tiny judgments lies at the heart of a newspaper's responsibility.