Headline news

Posted on July 27, 2015


What is a newspaper’s responsibility? To tell a story? Or draw eyeballs to that story in the first place?

I’m not one for pop-motivational quotes on calendars and posters, but I love reading stories about people who inspire through their lives. Many of them, unsurprisingly, are sportspeople. For most of us, that level of control over one’s life, the focus and discipline needed to become great in sport, in something, is a distant dream – heck, I can’t bring myself to commit to swimming three times a week. So I was riveted by the long interview with Olympic diver Tom Daley The Guardian ran on 18 July. It’s a fantastic interview, describing what it is to live a public life even as one strives for personal glory. “The competition is ferocious, particularly from the Chinese, and there is no margin for error… But there was more… there was the recent death of Daley’s father, the bullying at school and on Twitter, and the humiliation he had suffered in Beijing four years earlier, when his synchro partner Blake Aldridge (26 at the time) blamed the then 14-year-old for their failure to win a medal.”

This is just the second paragraph of the over-4000-word story, whose headline was: Tom Daley: ‘I always knew I was attracted to guys’.

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I was dismayed. The story speaks of physical strain (torn triceps). It talks about dealing with a father’s brain cancer, becoming Britain’s youngest competitor at the Beijing Olympics, what it’s like to be a diver. (“He hits the water at 35mph, and has said that every time he dives it’s like a car crash. Even when he gets it right, it hurts.”) Then there’s the training schedule: “11 sessions a week in the gym and dry dive, 11 pool sessions, and one session of ballet. Each session lasts between two and three hours.” And the diet: “egg whites and spinach and a bowl of porridge for breakfast, chicken and pulses for lunch, and salmon or chicken with steamed vegetables for dinner. Every day the same regime, same food, same 10pm bedtime.” It’s the stuff of an Oscar-ready Hollywood biopic. But the headline makes Daley’s life seem like an episode from a teen soap opera.

On one level, it’s easy to understand why a publication would resort to such a suggestive headline. With so much content out there on the web, a headline like “Tom Daley eats spinach and sleeps at 10pm” might not grab as many eyeballs. There’s a Hollywood angle too – Daley’s partner is screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Milk. And as everyone knows, cinema sells. But while I could see the logic behind this headline, I couldn’t accept its trivialisation of Daley’s efforts, the way it telescoped his life to just one thing.

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This isn’t about the story itself. This is a question about a newspaper’s responsibility. Is it merely to tell the story, or to draw eyeballs to that story in the first place? Take the case of American football player Michael Sam – let’s stick with sportspeople, though this is really about all public figures, all high-profile achievers – who created history by coming out as gay. When he made the announcement, in February 2014, this New York Times headline made perfect sense: N.F.L. Prospect Michael Sam Proudly Says What Teammates Knew: He’s Gay. Because that was the story. Sam’s gayness was the issue – because of how the very “macho” NFL would react, and because of how the announcement would affect Sam’s prospects of being drafted by a team, which would now have an extremely visible player on its hands. An assistant coach said, on nbcsports.com, “You shouldn’t have to live your life in secrecy… but do you really want to be the top of the conversation for everything without ever having played a down in this league?”

But Daley’s story isn’t about his coming out. That story broke in April 2014, with this perfectly appropriate Daily Mail headline: Five months after coming out as a bisexual, Tom Daley declares ‘I am a gay man now’ and his current relationship is ‘all good’. A whole year later – centuries in this digital age – is this still news? Is this angle the only one readers are supposed to be interested in?

Such a headline is a problem for quite a few reasons. One, many people do not have the time or the patience to read long stories, so the headline plays a huge part in what they take away from it. Two, whenever there’s talk of someone from the LGBTQ community, there’s the tendency to focus on their sexuality. (For contrast, see the August 2014 Sports Illustrated interview with Roger Federer. It talks about his wife and kids, but the headline is sedate, befitting the great man: Roger Federer on historic career: ‘I never thought it would be like this’.) Then again, Federer’s personal life has been as sedate as that headline, which leads me to Point Three: If one’s personal life is flashy or unconventional, then that becomes the overwhelming focus. Ask poor Virat Kohli. A March 2015 story in the Hindustan Times came with this breathless headline: Virat Kohli, Anushka Sharma arrive hand-in-hand from Australia. He seemed like someone returning not so much from a World Cup semi-final loss as a blissed-out honeymoon.

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