Hi, I'm Ben Hazell. I used to blog here about the media, but now I work there I don't write here anymore.
I'm the Web Publishing Editor at - I find better ways to tell stories, developing tools, training and practice for journalists.

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Rarely updated now, used during Journalism MA at the University of Sheffield.

Headlines spin news shocker!

Monday, 7 January 2008
One of the nicest things about the BBC News website is that it links off to rival news coverage on each story. This provides a great snapshot of how the news is being treated across the English language media.

You can also get this service from news aggregators such as Google News, but the BBC, presumably thanks to the unique way it's funded, is the only news publisher to do this, highlighting their competition.

It's a seemingly selfless act, but probably only increases the BBC's reputation rather than loosing them audience. Now the world has switched to tabbed browsing, linking out doesn't automatically take your audience away like it used to when we only had one page open per browser.

The news aggregator shows how different media outlets choose to spin the same stories. A great example is today’s story about a confrontation between US and Iranian naval forces.

As the story was initially sourced only from a US Navy press briefing, we can assume that all media outlets were reporting the exact same details. Clearly the story will rapidly develop as the media starts to make it's own inquiries, but for the first hour of such a story, everyone is working from the same information, and nobody can afford not to rush a report online. The BBC sidebar then provides an overview of the latest headlines used to describe these events.

There are some neat little variations on the story appearing.

The Guardian initially ran with "US 'almost opened fire' on Iranian ships". Having just read the story on the BBC, this headline seemed a little twisted against the US. It ignores the provocation crucial to the events, and 'Iranian ships' is a poor, potentially misleading, description of military speedboats.

An hour later they had re-run the story with "US ships 'threatened' by Iranian boats", presumably after having now taken the time to read the details off CNN a little more closely.

I guess the nice thing is that the Guardian leave the old version online, for transparencies sake, even if they don't actually link to it anymore. Also, re-publishing rather than editing the first story pushes them back to the top of the news aggregator feeds, which probably helps draw audience.

If you go to the Fox News homepage (They report, you decide!), you get the headline, "U.S. to Iran: Don't Mess With Us". Clearly those who head straight to Fox for their news like an agressive take on events. I took a picture for posterity - they don't archive the front page.

The headline actually on the story, and the one linked to by the BBC and the outside world, reads "U.S. Warns Iran Against 'Provocative Actions' Following Incident in Strait of Hormuz". It's a more reasonable headline to send out to the rest of the world.

Would it be cynical to suggest that most of their audience has no idea where the Strait of Hormuz is, but that it makes FOX sound knowledgeable and serious? I suspect so, especially given that since I started writing, they edited the story to include a huge map at the top pointing out the strait in big letters. Unlike the Guardian, Fox News doesn't seem to keep older versions of a story online.

Naming the straights in the headline is a detail which isn't needed for the benefit of the story, but for the benefit of the media organisation publishing. Scanning the news aggregators, only The Times, Murdoch's local outlet, also bothers to put this geographical detail in the headline.

The gulf between the political ideologies of the Guardian and Fox News won't surprise anyone, but the presence of such differently weighted headlines side by side does a great deal to foster impartiality. Aggregating the headlines helps us see exactly how news is being reported and spun, reminds us of the varied interpretations of facts possible, and shows us a spectrum of opinion. It's very useful.

Edit: You can watch the Iranian boat barney here.

Edit 2: Zany Iranians now claim the video is a 'clumsy fake'.


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