Why headlines are always wrong*

Update: After some pushing, I got the headline fixed.

Original post follows

I’ve complained in the past about the fact that writers in newspapers and magazines generally don’t get to choose their headlines. I’ve read that this is a hangover from the days of hot metal typesetting, when the headline had to be chosen to fit the layout of the paper, determined at the last minute by the sub-editors. Whatever the case, the tradition has endured.

I’ve rarely been happy with the headlines chosen for me, but most of the time they are not bad enough for me to complain. Today was an exception. Following my interview on the dairy industry, which was the subject of this post, the ABC ran a story which focused on a simple piece of arithmetic, quoted as follows

Professor of economics at the University of Queensland John Quiggin said if milk prices kept up with inflation, consumers would have to fork out an extra 46 cents a litre.
“If you maintained the real price of milk with 20 per cent inflation [across nine years] that would be around $1.56 today,” he said.
“Of course there is no economic law that says that all prices should rise at the same rate.

That was accurate as far as it went, though of course none of the points I actually wanted to make got through. The problem was with the subeditors, who highlight the sentence ending “$1.56 today”, and ran the piece under the headline Economics professor says milk should be $1.56 a litre in 2019, something dairy industry hopes for. I’ve complained, but nothing is going to happen on a Sunday, and probably nothing will be done anyway.

This reminds me of a more tangled case, which involved me in a silly Twitter fight recently.


In the context of the debate about the “income recession”, of which I have steered clear, the ACTU undertook some recession which claimed to show that household incomes have fallen faster in the past few years than during the recession of the 1990s. The ACTU’s issued a press release which mostly got it right, but got confused between levels and growth rates in a couple of places. The release ran in the union-backed New Daily, and of course, their subeditor picked out the juicy quote “Living standards at lowest point in 20 years” for the lead para and headline, ignoring the correct statement with which the article ended.

At this point, Fairfax economics correspondent Eryk Bagshaw got into the act, slamming the ACTU for an “extraordinary claim”. When contacted, the ACTU clarified that it was referring to rates of changes and not levels. But illustrating the military maxim “Never volunteer, never apologize, never explain”, Bagshaw treated this as an admission of error rather than as a correction of an obvious confusion.

Plenty of blame to go around here, but the lesson for me is clear. From now on, I’m going to insist on writing my own headlines, or, if that’s not possible, getting a right of veto


* See what I did there?

14 thoughts on “Why headlines are always wrong*

  1. I saw what you did there.*

    Due to associations in my mind, this reminds me of “This statement is wrong.”, as an exercise in paradox. In turn that reminds me of the deflationary theory of truth. I have seen it claimed, in the deflationary spirit, that “There cannot be a theory of truth.” My rejoinder was and is that “there cannot be a theory of truth” is a theory of truth.

    Disclosure: I adhere to the correspondence theory of truth. Peirce puts it best I think.

    “That truth is the correspondence of a representation to its object is, as Kant says, merely the nominal definition of it. Truth belongs exclusively to propositions. A proposition has a subject (or set of subjects) and a predicate. The subject is a sign; the predicate is a sign; and the proposition is a sign that the predicate is a sign of that which the subject is a sign. If it be so, it is true. But what does this correspondence or reference of the sign, to its object, consist in?” – Charles Sanders Peirce

    I’ve solved Peirce’s final question in my autodidact metaphysics (in my naive opinion) by utilising strict priority monism plus systems philosophy. I mention theories of truth because we should not argue about anything if we do not have a coherent theory of truth as a basis for argument. Of course, the owners of capital use the argument from power.

  2. Slightly off topic, in your previous article about milk prices you said that the supermarket’s market power and them using milk as a loss leader contributed to lower prices paid to the dairy industry. I understand the former, but wouldn’t the loss leader aspect increase volumes and so wholesale prices?

  3. tgdavies,

    Not if the duopoly was also exerting monopsony or “duopsony” power at the same time, either themselves or through an intermediary monopoly-monopsonist.

    “In economics, a monopsony is a market structure in which only one buyer interacts with many would-be sellers of a particular product.” – Wikipedia.

    A farm business, being small relative to the monopsonist, sells to to the monopsonist at the monopsonist determined price or pours its milk on the ground and leaves the business.

  4. Yes — the monopsony aspect is what I took John to be referring to when he said “market power”. I was interested in what difference the fact that milk is being used as a loss leader makes.

  5. I suspect that anybody under 30 just assumes as a matter of course that authors write their own headlines. That’s how it works for books and blogs, right? Agreed that the newspaper convention is archaic and should go.

  6. Not just the headline, the content of the story is not up to much either. Reports the aspirations of one section of the dairy industry as if it represents the whole. Consumers just take your chance.

  7. Poor John Quiggin. I sympathise squarely with what your posting, especially after last week, esp the shamefully biased NSW election coverage involving msm..

    You are an honest man and the duplicity of others baffles you. Don’t you wish you lacked ethics also, so much easier even if the gloss of the considered life becomes tarnished a little down at intellectual skid row. At skid row, life can be hard too, but there is always the ultimate joy and fulfillment that comes of discovering another discarded cigarette bumper.

    Then again, if you entered a half marathon and drove to the finish line, would the sense of accomplishment be quite the same?

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