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Public editor: Headlines are hard to write, but they must be precise

Palestinians gather around the remains of a house that police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip July 14, 2014.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

The Middle East is a complex, complicated and very sensitive part of the world for news coverage. So news media must be careful to get the facts right and be cognizant of balance at all times.

On Monday, The Globe and Mail made a mistake in its front-page headline. It said, "Defying Hamas, thousands flee Gaza."

The article notes that about 10,000 people have left their homes in northern Gaza even though Hamas told them to stay. But the headline suggestion that they fled Gaza is not true and cannot be.

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As a reader on social media noted, the borders are sealed and people cannot flee Gaza. "Front page headline exposes @globeandmail ignorance: Gaza's borders are sealed; ppl fleeing home/not Gaza."

This is especially true after the military coup in Egypt last year when the government closed a network of smuggling tunnels into the region.

There is one exception to the sealed borders: Gazans with dual citizenship can leave through the border crossing by which journalists and diplomats and aid workers enter and leave. Several hundred dual citizens have chosen to leave Gaza in the past few days.

Headlines are notoriously difficult to write. Using very few, high-impact words, the editor must try to sum up major news events in a compelling way. Still, "Defying Hamas, many flee homes in Gaza"or "Defying Hamas, thousands flee in Gaza" would have been accurate.

Last week, I received an e-mail from a reader who complained about another front-page headline, this one saying: "A Show of Military Strength." He believed that it was not "inclusive for both sides."

In fact, that headline was correct and covered both sides. The deck underneath says, "Hamas launches more, longer range rockets; Israel responds with deadly airstrikes." That makes it clear that the show of military strength is on both sides.

He also objected to the red placeline of Gaza over the headline, while the photograph showed Israelis running toward a bomb shelter. "A quick glance would yield the feeling that they are Gazans running. In fact, they are Israelis," he said.

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In my view, the photo was clearly labelled. The caption says: "Israelis run toward a bomb shelter as a siren warns of incoming rockets in the southern city of Ashkelon on Wednesday."

This reader also made a statement I found troubling. He said the byline includes an "Arab sounding name from Gaza, and so more likely sympathetic to Gaza. Non-Jewish sounding name for reporter in Israel. … Solution. Get a reporter with a Jewish sounding name in Israel."

The background of the reporters is irrelevant to the coverage. In this case, these are two Associated Press reporters who live and work in the region. But whether they work for a wire service or for The Globe and Mail, it doesn't matter what their religion or background is. What matters is their balanced and fair coverage.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More


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