Stripes ombudsman: Page 1 headlines during Iraq war true to mission
Stars and Stripes ombudsman
This is the fourth in a series of columns on the coverage by Stars and Stripes of the conditions in Iraq since April 2004, which was the first anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. The first three columns appeared in the June 28, July 27 and Aug. 30 editions.
This column deals with the headline and graphic displays on Page 1. Two hundred front pages from April through the end of the presidential conventions early this month were tracked and studied. The European, Pacific and Mideast editions were reviewed. Where the Mideast and the European editions had the same headlines on Page 1, only one paper was counted. The Pacific edition always had at least one different headline from the European and/or Mideast edition and was tracked separately.
The goal was to determine the number, emphasis and variety of stories chosen for Page 1 display and the tone and quality of the headlines.
As a tabloid, which is physically half the size of the standard newspaper page, Stars and Stripes has faced complaints that it was “a sensational tabloid” because it used large headlines on crime stories on Page 1. This is the stereotype that comes from the approach of some metropolitan area tabloids.
But a tabloid is, first and foremost, a convenient, easy-to-handle and easy-to-read format. It is also an ideal format for the military audience. Some tabloids use a mix of text and pictures with text starting on Page 1, Others are just pictures and headlines on Page 1. Stripes has designed and uses a format that tries to present variety on what’s inside the newspaper through headlines and pictures. And what was the tone and emphasis on the main Page 1 headline?
Page 1 of Stripes is a billboard for the news of the day. This review looked at Stripes’ front pages in five ways. How many news items were featured on Page 1? What was the topic of the main headlines? Was the topic chosen for news value or “sensationalism”? What was the total number and variety of news items featured on Page 1? And what was the tone and emphasis of the Page 1 headlines?
Stories featured on Page 1: Seventy-one percent of the time there were six displays on Page 1; 16 percent of the time, 5; 12.5 percent of the time, 7; and, only once, 4. The look of Page 1 was consistent and attractive.
Main headline: Military news, which would be the equivalent of “local news” for the typical hometown newspaper, dominated. Forty percent of the stories were stories of specific interest to military personnel. Two-third were a combination of positive and negatives stories about how the Iraq war aftermath was affecting military personnel. One-third was significant coverage of non-war issues.
The most recent column in this series (“Stripes reporters had their own Iraq stories to tell”) praised the efforts of the Stripes reporting staff to provide a dimension of the Iraq situation beyond the breaking news. The headline survey showed that the reporting effort was properly taken to the next level with significant attention on Page 1.
Breaking war action was the main story 27.5 percent of the time; national news was featured 12 percent of the time; foreign news 10 percent; and miscellaneous other, 10.5 percent.
Crime news, the typical fare of many tabloids, was included in the “all other” category, which totaled 20 stories. Only four of the 20 were crime stories. And all four were in the Pacific edition and a typical one (main headline and subhead) was: “20 sailors implicated in Guam drug probe” “Some will face jail time; all to be kicked out of Navy.”
News value of main topics: A review of all the main headlines showed much more emphasis on news value than “sensationalism.”
The main headlines consistently were declarative and not provocative. Some examples:
- “Kosovo 5 years later” “The U.S. military presence is now smaller, but the mission hasn’t changed since 1999”
- “String of attacks kills about 100 in Iraq”
- “Hundreds of students held captive in Russia”
- “Saddam defiant in court”
- “Bush OKs 3.5 percent salary hike for troops” “How much does that mean for you? See the 2005 pay chart”
- “U.S. officials warn: Stay clear of Iraqi food” “Estimates say over 100 soldiers getting sick each week”</BL>
Variety of news on Page 1: Overall there were 1,183 headlines or pictures on Page 1 in the 200 front pages reviewed. It was no surprise that 359 stories or 30.4 percent of headlines — at least one story a day and a second three out of four days — involved the Iraq war. The 359 represented 55 breaking news stories; 164 military (staff-produced); 93 foreign; and 47 national.
The breakdown of nonwar stories that compose the other 69.6 percent of the total showed variety and, no surprise, sports led the list. It was:
- Sports — 19.4 percent of the overall total
- Military (staff-produced) — 17.8 percent
- Entertainment/features — 17.3 percent
- National — 6.7 percent
- Foreign — 4 percent
- Miscellaneous other — 1.7 percent
- Business — 1.5 percent
- Disaster/crime — 1.2 percent
Headline tone and accuracy: The tone and text of the headlines reflected care in balancing being informative, declarative and accurate — but not being dull and/or boring. In an exercise of nitpicking, I found less than a dozen that could have used a rewrite.
On the positive side, I found a good number of headlines that made you want to read the story while avoiding exaggeration and/or being provocative.
Those that stand out include:
- “Building the road to danger”
- “Combat stress: ‘the silent enemy’”
- “Poker in a high-stakes environment”
- “Staying a step ahead”
- “Oprah takes stock of booming success”
- “Memory of late coach motivates softball team at Marine Forces”
In summary, the front pages in this period reflected the mission of being the hometown paper overseas for the military and care in the selection of the news items featured and the writing of the headlines.
Send comments to Joe Ungaro at: Ombudsman, Stars and Stripes, 529 14th St. NW, Suite 350, Washington, D.C. 20045-1301. Phone civilian +1(401) 364-6032; fax +1(401) 364-8696; or e-mail email@example.com