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The 'Big Story' From One Poll

Many of the questions that often arise regarding how news is covered have to do with why certain aspects of a story are highlighted and others appear further down in the story. In a response to a recent post about how many times Presidents Bush and Clinton have granted interviews to the big three networks, PE reader mailpro56 posed such a question about the headline in this recent story on the results of a CBS News/New York Times poll:
I can only wonder why Bush has ignored CBS. Hillary, I was wondering if you can find out why on the CBSnews website, one of the leads was Bush Approval Remains low. However, within the article it says most people agree with his wiretapping program. Can I get your opinion on what the bigger story is? I may be stupid ... but the big story has been wiretapping...why wouldn't that be the lead headline?
Instead of offering my opinion on the matter, because I don't write the headlines that appear on stories unless they appear on this blog, I decided to ask Michael Sims, director of news and operations at Here is his response:
The "big story" out of a poll like this is subjective. There's simply so much information to report on. Our editors try to find the single most important aspect of a story for the headline ... one that can be communicated in 38 characters. No reader should believe that a headline conveys the entire story. We think most people understand that. It should also be pointed out, that we always publish the entire, raw, results of every CBS News poll.
In The New York Times' story about the poll, however, findings about Americans' support of wiretapping were the primary thrust of the piece. "New Poll Finds Mixed Support for Wiretaps," the headline reads. President Bush's approval rating is mentioned briefly toward the end of the story:
Mr. Bush is viewed favorably by 42 percent of the respondents, statistically the same as in the last Times/CBS News poll, in early December, a lackluster rating that could hamper his ability to rally public opinion behind his agenda and push legislation through a divided Congress.
This is, of course, a question of news judgement. If neither outlet exercised some, the headline would likely have been, "CBS, New York Times Conduct Poll," which frankly, is boring. The New York Times was the paper to first break the wiretapping story, so it isn't terribly surprising that the poll results related to that issue were of primary interest to the paper. The story, by comparison, seemed more general overview of the entire poll, in which case the headline was perhaps a less obvious decision and the editor was left to determine what was "the most important aspect" of the story, as Sims explained. Approval ratings seem a notable figure to highlight as the president prepares to give the State of the Union, but an argument surely could be made that another aspect of the poll would have made an appropriate headline. That, of course, is the trouble with news judgement -- it's in the eye of the beholder.