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Getting ahead of the news

Chronicle response follows

A front page headline in today's San Francisco Chronicle exclaims "UC abruptly tightens admission standards."

But it didn't.

Faced with the good news that more students are apparently qualifying for admission to the elite nine-campus system, U.C. officials said that standards would have to be tightened in the future to avoid enrolling more than the 12.5% target set by the state's Master Plan.

Patrick Mattimore

But they didn't tighten standards. The Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, and indeed even the Chronicle, reported that proposed changes in eligibility will be made by the UC regents in July. The regents would then be responsible for making any changes in admissions standards.

One way to gauge the Chronicle's headline is to examine other newspapers that covered the same story. For example, the Mercury News, more modestly headlines with, “UC may raise the bar on entrance requirement.” The Oakland Tribune’s headline is “New study shows more students meet UC eligibility requirements.” The L.A. Times chose to include the admissions information within another story about fee considerations.

A good newspaper headline should be like an appetizer to a fine meal. That is, it should whet a reader’s palate for the main course. It should not overwhelm the reader by promising more than the story can deliver.

Few people read an entire newspaper. For papers to sell, editors know that they must attract potential consumers’ attention. They also know that to keep readers they cannot consistently oversell the news with blaring headlines.

These are “wow” and “hmmm” stories -- ones that sharply catch a reader’s interest but leave one feeling that the promise was not fulfilled. Balancing a mainstream newspaper’s responsibility to both sell and not oversell the news can be tricky. How a paper manages the task to a great extent defines the quality of that newspaper.

At a time when Americans are reading newspapers less and less and news is being served as increasingly superficial fast food fare, it is essential that editors abide by the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics regarding headline accuracy and objectivity. The Code states: “Newspaper headlines should be fully warranted by the contents of the articles they accompany.”

Dick Rogers, public editor of the Chronicle responds:

I don't have any quarrel with the hed. It seems to reflect the major elements of the story -- that the governing body was responding abruptly and did order a change in admissions standards. The story says that the specifics of that change must still be determined through a process involving the faculty committee. I suppose it would be more literal to say that UC abruptly decided to change the standards (although it obvious wouldn't fit). But the hed doesn't strike me as misleading any more than the kinds of headlines that declare the Legislature tightens a budget or expands rights for the disabled or etc. None of those things happen the moment the governing body makes the decision. They all have to be carried out through an administrative process.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)


Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

Site highlights


The three-part series follows the rise of three Bay Area handouts:
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• Part 3: Free papers' growth threatens traditional news
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• And: The free tabloid that wasn't: East Bay's aborted Daily Flash


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Newspapers can't maintain monopoly profits because they've lost their monopolies, by Philip Meyer
Knight Ridder in grave jeopardy, by Lou Alexander...


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