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Melania Trump and the 'Jackson magnolia': Why headlines matter

Yesterday, the White House announced that first lady Melania Trump decided to remove an iconic magnolia tree planted in remembrance of Andrew Jackson’s wife. The “Jackson magnolia” has stood for nearly 200 years and is showing its age. Arborists suggested that the tree be removed for the safety of those who stand near it during White House functions.

That’s the entire story, which you would report just like that if you weren’t trying to be biased. Take, for instance, this tweet and headline by Newsweek:

With “orders removal …” that tweet and headline make it seem like the first lady is the only person who was in charge of the decision. When you read the article, there is an editor’s note stating that the story has been updated, “with additional insights about the decision to remove the tree.” The removal is justified for safety concerns, but the large majority of Americans who scan headlines without reading the actual article are left with the impression that Trump herself wanted to remove a historic landmark.

Those writing headlines should be cognizant that many readers do not actually read stories and should work to be as clear as possible. Yes, you want to leave something for people to click on the link. You can do that and not be completely biased in your headline and social media copy.

Other outlets followed Newsweek’s lead:

Contrast the above tweets with this from the Washington Post:

It clearly states why the tree is being removed. Readers scanning on Twitter or Facebook understand the context and are not likely to share misinformation.

Media organizations spend an inordinate amount of time arguing with President Trump about “fake news.” It’s headlines like this that spawn runaway narratives without any context. Twitter recently upped its character count to 280; there is no excuse for leaving out important information in a tweet.

Social media teams and headline writers can and should do better. They knew exactly what they were doing in this case.

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