Headline Writer Misses the Point?

Goodness knows there are more important things in this world than a headline that fails to fit the story. Nor are they rare: headlines generally are written by busy people other than the reporters.

While catching up with coverage, this one grabbed my attention, though, at Business Week:

How 2006 Mine-Safety Law Led to ‘Broken’ U.S. System
(Update2) April 28, 2010, 11:30 AM EDT

In my book, “led to” implies a causal relationship, direct or indirect. In a headline, “Broken U.S. System,” to me implies a whole schema.

Several posts back, I actually predicted that some critics might suggest the cause of the recent explosion was too much regulation, rather than too little. Based on the headline, it looked as though this might be coming true.

But no. The Business Week piece covers a hearing I also attended last week — where that particular prediction did not come true. It also includes interview material and additional background information.

And as I read it, nothing in the body of the Business Week piece suggests that the 2006 law bore any causal relationship to an overall “broken” mine safety system.

Joe Main, head of MSHA, is quoted as saying the MSHA “pattern of violations” part of the system is “broken.” Some have indeed connected the higher penalties under the 2006 law with increasing legal contests, which in turn reduce a mine’s chances of being identified with a pattern of violations. But even that chain of causality, as I read it, is not made fully explicit in this particular piece. And the pattern of violations provisions were rarely used — either before the 2006 law or after.

Readers who follow the piece all the way to the bottom will learn that most of those quoted are suggesting that the 2006 law did not go far enough.

Yet, if someone reads the headline without delving into the actual story — as many readers do — it is almost guaranteed to give the opposite impression: that the 2006 law made things worse.

* * *

Meanwhile, at NPR we get a story that the FBI has undertaken an investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing at Upper Big Branch, including the possibility that someone at MSHA took bribes. (An update stated that an investigation of MSHA has been denied but that the FBI is indeed engaged in some kind of investigation. Meanwhile NPR stated that it stood by its original story.)

It is not the first time that the FBI has looked into a mine disaster.

Following the 1984 Wilberg mine fire in Utah, five government agencies took part in the accident investigation: MSHA, the Utah State Mine Inspector, the Utah State Fire Marshal’s office, the Emery County sheriff, and the FBI. The FBI was there because of a rumor that the fire was caused by arson. That rumor turned out to be absolutely false.

As for the bribery rumor, rumors are always rampant after a catastrophic accident, and I would hope this one turns out to be equally false.

Unfortunately bribery convictions have not been unknown in the past history of MSHA. Twelve years ago Gardiner Harris reported in his Louisville Courier-Journal series, “Dust, Deception and Death,”

since 1992, 11 inspectors have been convicted of taking bribes.

I do not happen to recall any recent cases, however, and would hope that any such wrongdoing is history at this point.

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One Response to “Headline Writer Misses the Point?”

  1. Attention to language is so important!

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