If you have followed this blog for long, then you have heard your GetReligionistas -- in a kind of whiny voice common among offended reporters -- stress that reporters do not get to write the headlines that run on top of their stories.
Nevertheless, readers often blame the contents of a headline on the person named in the byline. People who study these kinds of things will tell you that a high percentage of readers only scan the headlines and then skip all but the first few lines of most news stories, if they read that much.
So what's my point? Headlines really matter.
Case in point: I got excited today when I saw the following headline as I worked my way through my morning email summary of the top news in The New York Times. I'm talking about the one that said: "Transcripts of Calls With Orlando Gunman Will Be Released."
That's important news, in light of all of the speculation there was been about the "Why?" part of the "Who, what, when, where, why and how" equation linked to Orlando gunman Omar Mateen. I mean, there are many mysteries about what was happening inside the mind of this sexually conflicted (possibly gay), Muslim with Afghanistan roots who was a registered Democrat and, with his job as a low-level worker in a security firm (that even had ties to the Department of Homeland Security), had no trouble legally purchasing weapons.
This news about the transcripts of the cellphone calls between the police and Mateen -- during his rampage inside the gay bar -- is crucial. These transcripts would, apparently, give the public a chance to hear the gunmen talking about his actions, even his motives, in his own voice.
The problem with this soft Times headline is that it was missing a crucial word that readers needed to know. Let's see if you can spot it in the lede:
WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department will release partial transcripts of conversations between the police and the Orlando gunman from the night he carried out a deadly attack at a gay nightclub, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on Sunday.
The transcripts, expected to be released on Monday, will include three calls between the gunman, Omar Mateen, and negotiators who spoke with him as the massacre was unfolding. Law enforcement officials will also provide a detailed timeline of those calls.
Spot it? The crucial missing word is "partial."
Now, anyone want to guess what parts of Mateen's quotes have been edited out of the public transcripts by government officials? Here's the attorney general, again:
Ms. Lynch said the calls should shed light on the motivation behind Mr. Mateen’s decision to walk into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on June 12 and carry out an attack in which 49 people were fatally shot before he was killed by the police. ...
She declined to comment on potential charges in the case but said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that she considered the shooting both “an act of terror and an act of hate.”
Ms. Lynch said the transcripts would not include portions of the calls that would risk “revictimizing” those affected by the shooting or could “further this man’s propaganda,” including Mr. Mateen’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State.
“As we have said earlier, he talked about his pledges of allegiance to a terrorist group,” Ms. Lynch said on CNN. “He talked about his motivations for why he was claiming at that time he was committing this horrific act. He talked about American policy in some ways.”
I think most readers would understand the government marking out statements about the victims. But what about that reference to eliminating the parts of his remarks -- especially material about ISIS and "American policy" -- that might serve to "further this man's propaganda?
What in the world does that mean? Is it possible that government officials, to state the matter bluntly, have removed any parts of the transcripts in which Mateen talks about connections between ISIS and whatever radicalized form of Islam led him to make that pledge of loyalty? Would this mean editing whatever Mateen said about his motives and beliefs, if those words linked religion and his views on LGBT people?
In other words, is the government equating any words about religion and/or Islam with "propaganda?
Alas, this Times story -- which was built on Lynch's television appearances -- does not, or perhaps cannot, go any further.
So the goal here is for the public to understand Mateen's motives, unless they have to do with his sympathies for the Islamic State and, it would be logical to assume, its approach to its twisted, radicalized form of Islam.
So the goal is to get inside the mind and heart of the gunman, except for all of that nasty religious propaganda?
We will see. But here is my point, again: Would it have hurt for editors at the Times to have put the word "partial" in that headline and to have pursued that angle a bit in the reporting? I am sure that this soft, incomplete headline pleased the Justice Department (and the White House), but I am not sure that the public was well served.