When I began contributing reviews and op-eds to newspapers, it was a revelation to me that the people who write the articles are not the people who write the headlines. I understand the papers' desire for stylistic consistency and for a good overall mix of headline types. The risk, however, is that a headline comes out that is not accurately reflective of the article. Then one wonders: is this simply due to sloppiness on the part of the headline editor, or is it an attempt to advance the paper's editorial agenda?
Take this article by Matthew L. Wald in today's New York Times. Here's the headline:
Wind Farms May Not Lower Air Pollution, Study Suggests
And here's the lede:
Building thousands of wind turbines would probably not reduce the pollutants that cause smog and acid rain, but it would slow the growth in emissions of heat-trapping gases, according to a study released Thursday by the National Academy of Sciences.
The headline is technically right: slowing the growth of emissions is not the same as lowering emissions. Nevertheless, it's misleading--or at the very least ambiguous--on two counts: it strongly implies that wind turbines would not have any effect on air pollution at all, and it sets up the confusing and inaccurate distinction between "pollutants" and "emissions" which is developed in the lede.
I attempted to compare the New York Times summary of the National Academy of Sciences' report in an attempt to determine whether this distortion originated in the Times or the NAS. I wasn't able to do so, because the NAS charges for a download of the full report. Grrr . . . haven't we taxpayers already paid for this material? If the mission of the NAS, as headlined on its website, is to be "advisers to the nation on science, engineering and medicine," then surely they ought to make their advice freely available.
At any rate, I'm suspicious about whether an institution that relies significantly on oil industry advertising is playing it straight on this issue. Of course, given the way the Bush administration has politicized scientific research at all levels of government, I'm also suspicious about whether the NAS and the "Executive Office of the President, Council on Environmental Quality" (which "supported" the NAS report) can be considered an unbiased source of scientific evaluation.