Sunday, June 12, 2011

Headlines matter

Reading a recent headline, I was reminded of these two news clips that I saved from my days as Chairman of the MA Department of Public Utilities in 1983. The case was about whether a local utility company had acted prudently with regard to purchases of natural gas in a previous year. Our conclusion was that the company had inappropriately cancelled a supply contract, leaving it vulnerable to supply interruption and therefore extra gas replacement costs when the cold weather arrived. We therefore disallowed a portion of those extra costs while permitting it to collect the remainder.

The decision was issued in late morning on December 30, and the afternoon edition (yes, they had one then!) of the Boston Globe portrayed it this way:

The next morning, though, the news had apparently changed.

This nicely demonstrates the power of the headline writer, whether for a newspaper or an on-line story. If you read the two stories, too, you will see a subtle shift in emphasis in the lede between the two versions. Both, by the way, are correct. The issue is whether you view the DPU's decision as a "glass half empty" or a "glass half full" story. Once the people at the newspaper had more time to think about the story, they changed their minds.

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