‘Obamacare’ wrong choice for headline

“Obamacare arrives Thursday” began a recent front-page headline, and a number of readers objected.

“This term [Obamacare] is a pejorative coined by the Republicans,” Nancy Wolcott of Miami Beach wrote me. “It is not neutral. To use it for a news story is either naive or partisan, not what I expect from the Herald editors.”

Sylvan Seidenman of Miami expanded: “The term `Obamacare’ has never been anything but a term used by detractors, ignoring the long and tortuous path the legislation followed, and the many compromises the president and Democrats had to make to ensure passage of the bill.”

He wondered if someone inside The Herald was also out to discredit President Barack Obama.

I agree that The Herald was wrong to use the term as its own. After talking with editors, however, I am satisfied that what happened was a mix of an honest mistake and a wrong judgment call made under pressure on deadline. I found no intention to discredit the president or the new healthcare law.

“This wasn’t a good headline,” said Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal. “We should have had a more objective way of describing the program.”

What the issue does point out is the power of headlines, the dangers we all face over being politically manipulated by word usage and the inexact science of deciding when a term has entered the popular lexicon and is acceptable.

These dilemmas are highlighted by the fact that the article in question wasn’t political at all. It was a Sunday page one, consumer-friendly feature for readers as the first part of the new healthcare law was about to go into effect. The full headline was: “Obamacare here Thursday . . . Here’s what to expect.”

In much of Europe and Latin America, headlines are written by reporters, but in the United States they are written by desk editors. The overseas way is more efficient, but the U.S. system recognizes that writing titles is an art form.

As Managing Editor Aminda Marques Gonzalez told me, “It takes a really good wordsmith to give the essence of an article in five or six words and be accurate, engaging and respect tone.”

That job for the front page and most section fronts falls to the night editor. He also makes the final selection of articles and their placement, based on late-breaking news, and does a final content read — always with an eye on the ticking clock.

His decisions have great influence on readers as they scan the headlines, decide what to read and draw fast conclusions on the news, often without reading the article. The night editor’s responsibility is heavy, and once was spread among several people.

Casey Frank was the night editor as the healthcare story came up in his computer on a Saturday. Frank, 55, is a veteran journalist who has been at The Herald for more than 30 years, most of it as an editor in almost every department.

He wrote the Obamacare headline.

“The reason I used it was because from where I sit as an observer of the news, the healthcare bill was the president’s main priority in the first year of his presidency and, for better or worse, was his signature accomplishment,” Frank told me.

He knew how Republicans were using the term, he said, but he felt that it was being said as shorthand even among some supporters of the law. In retrospect, he said, he “probably” should have picked another term, but insisted: “No slight was intended in the use of the word, and that is sincere — absolutely sincere. It was a way to convey an idea in as few words as possible.”

He noted that even use of the word “reform” — as in healthcare reform — is loaded, as it implies that something needs changing.

On Sunday, “Obamacare” was dropped from the headline on the web version of the story. Some complaints were already coming into the newsroom. Also, Marques said, editors wanted a more searchable-friendly description for what was still a consumer-service article.

Political players understand the power of words, which is why they keep hammering certain ones as a way to frame a point of view. The Herald can’t avoid words just because someone uses them in loaded ways, but as Marques noted, “one word can denote a tone, and that is definitely not what we wanted to do.”

Word decisions are necessarily subjective. The tone you hear in a word may be different from how I hear it. Has “Obamacare” entered the general vocabulary enough that it has overcome its origins? I don’t think so. But who among us will absolutely know when — or if — it does?

This column was originally published in the Miami Herald on Oct. 10, 2010.

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