We live in an age of unprecedented communications technology. With access to cell phones, Skype, email, Twitter, etc., it is has never been easier for people to communicate with one another. So why then is it so hard for reporters and headline writers to talk to each other? Headlines that mislead or that do not fairly represent a writer’s article are a perennial problem. A recent, especially egregious example can be found in the U.K.’s The Telegraph. Here is the headline and subhead on an article by religious affairs editor John Bingham:
Religion told to halt weddings over gay rights
The future of traditional Indian weddings in Britain is in doubt because of the fallout from gay marriage passing into law, it has emerged.
An entire category of human experience – “religion” -- is told to halt weddings? By whom? And if the headline is intended to refer to a specific religion, why not just say so?
Perhaps the subhead is intended to provide a clue by mentioning “traditional Indian weddings.” But that doesn’t really narrow it down since India is the birthplace of four of the world's major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism.
It’s advisable to never use a nationality as a stand-in for any religion, but since the headline does, can we assume it’s a reference to Hinduism? Since Hindus account for 80 percent of the population of India that must be the religion that holds “traditional Indian weddings,” right? Well, no. This article is about Sikhism, which is not only a minority religion in the U.K. (accounting for only 0.8 percent of the population) but is a minority religion in India too (only 1.9 percent of Indians are Sikhs).
Aside from the confusing and grammatically suspect headline (what does “it has emerged” even mean?), the article itself does a commendable job of reporting on the controversy without editorializing:
Sikh temples have been advised to halt all civil marriage ceremonies on their premises to protect them from possible legal challenges for refusing to conduct same-sex weddings.
It is the first example of a religious group altering its marriage practices to avoid potential litigation based on equalities or human rights law.
Other groups, including the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and the orthodox Jewish organisation United Synagogue, also resisted the legislation, but they have not indicated that they will go as far as to surrender their marriage licences.
Bingham reports the controversy fairly and succinctly. The only complaint I have with the article itself is that it doesn't provide any background information about Sikhism or address the tension between the secular and religious understanding of equality and discrimination. This is a significant oversight since Sikhism emphasizes the principle of equality of all humans and rejects discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, and gender. For instance, the holy scripture of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, says:
Man is born from a woman; within woman, man is conceived; to a woman he is engaged and married. Man is friends with woman; through woman, the future generations exist. When his woman passes away, he seeks another woman; to a woman a man is bound. So why call her bad? From her, kings are born. From a woman, woman is born; without woman there would be no one at all. (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, 473).
It would also have been worth asking why Sikhs are the first religious group to separate the civil aspect from their wedding rituals. Perhaps we could get a follow-up that quotes leaders from other religious faiths to hear if they have similar concerns.
But back to the reason for this post: that terrible headline. Is there a reason editors don’t consult the writer of an article before slapping on a headline? Pressing deadlines are likely to be the excuse given, of course, but I don’t think it can withstand scrutiny. “Getting it right” should be at least as important as “getting it out.”
So why don’t you, dear editor, ask your reporter if the headlines you run on their work has some connection with their content? A quick phone call or email could do wonders to preserve your institutional reputation and prevent the eye-rolling and head-shaking that comes when readers stumble across such clunky, absurd headlines.