When I started in journalism — back when cavemen and Terry Mattingly roamed the earth — reporters at major newspapers typically didn't write their own headlines.
They'd file their story to an assigning editor, who would give it a first read, ask questions, make revisions and eventually ship it down the line, either to another assigning editor or to the copy desk. It was not unusual for a handful of editors to handle a story — particularly a major one — before it hit the press and landed on readers' driveways before sunup.
The copy desk — often late at night — would check for grammar, spelling and Associated Press style errors. And at some point, a slot editor would place the story on a page with a headline that could be any number of lines and columns, depending on the ads around it.
Before the days of easy fixes online, the copy editors saved reporters from egregious and embarrassing mistakes in smelly black ink. But yes, sometimes, those same editors — under deadline pressure — came up with headlines that were, um, less than representative of what the story actually said.
So a common defense of the writer class to headline fails was: "Reporters don't write their own headlines." In other words, don't blame us!
Is that still true? In the web-first age, do writers still depend on editors to craft their headlines? In some cases, yes. But in general, it varies. So I have no idea who wrote the headline on the USA Today story I want to highlight today.
But I will say this: The newspaper's story on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case (click here if you somehow have no idea what I'm talking about) is interesting and informative.
The headline? Not so much:
Same-sex marriage foes stick together despite long odds
That's not really what the story is about.
If you can ignore the unnecessary quote marks (we sometimes call them scare quotes) in the opening paragraph, USA Today's lede does a nice job of setting the scene:
WASHINGTON — When a Colorado "cake artist" who refuses to serve same-sex weddings brings his case to the Supreme Court next month, he'll have a tight-knit fraternity of florists, bakers and memory makers in his corner.
The group — ranging from a Kentucky designer of custom Christian T-shirts to Minnesota videographers who say their company exists to glorify God — has much at stake in Jack Phillips' uphill crusade against his state's anti-discrimination law.
Over the past five years, they have suffered a nearly unbroken string of defeats at the hands of human rights commissions and local, state and federal courts. Again and again, authorities have ruled that merchants offering goods and services to the public must serve all comers.
The losses have driven some same-sex marriage opponents out of business and cost others their standard of living and peace of mind. Their stories find little sympathy from the gay rights movement, whose leaders say the solution is simple: stop discriminating.
But the nation's highest court, closely divided since 2013 over same-sex marriage, offers the group potential salvation. Even a narrow ruling in favor of Phillips' Masterpiece Cakeshop could extend to others who say their artistic creations deserve First Amendment protections.
Keep reading, and the writer offers excellent context on recent Supreme Court decisions on religious liberty. Plus, the story reminds readers of the basics of a handful of high-profile free speech-vs.-gay rights skirmishes that have made headlines in recent years, including one in Kentucky:
The new case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, and others like it focus more on religious believers' free speech rights. The challengers say it's not about gays and lesbians but the sanctity of marriage. They point out that they also refuse other requests; Phillips, for instance, won't design cakes for Halloween.
Blaine Adamson, the T-shirt printer who refused to design shirts for a gay pride parade in Kentucky, says he also has nixed shirts promoting strip clubs, portraying Jesus on a bucket of chicken, and proclaiming "Homosexuality is a sin." He was charged with discrimination by the Lexington-Fayette human rights commission before winning twice in local and state courts. The case is now pending before the Kentucky Supreme Court.
“Let’s never forget that our freedoms travel together," Adamson told Phillips' supporters in Colorado last week. "So if Jack’s forced to violate his conscience, it’s only a matter of time before I’m forced to violate mine."
It really is quite educational, particularly for readers who have not followed these issues closely.
Bottom line: Don't let the headline fool you. This tasty read is worth your time.