The Headline Shuffle at LA Times

On the eve of President Barack Obama’s visit to the Southland, the Los Angeles Times published an article reported from Washington by Paul Richter, in which Obama’s campaign promise to recognize the Armenian Genocide was called into question through quotes and attributions from administration officials and the National Security Council spokesperson. What was most glaring, however, was the alteration of its headline, sub-head and lead paragraph in its various incarnations from online to print and online again.

The article first appeared Monday evening on latimes.com with the following headline: “Obama backs off pledge to declare Armenian genocide,” followed by this sub-heading: “The administration is considering postponing a presidential statement amid warnings that it would risk Turkey’s help in the Mideast.” The lead paragraph on that version also started with “The Obama administration is backtracking on a promised presidential declaration that Armenia’s were victims of genocide in the early 20th century, fearful alienating Turkey when US officials badly want its help.”

By Tuesday morning when the article appeared in the print edition and online the headline was different: “Obama wavers on pledge to declare Armenian genocide,” and the sub-head, which read “A campaign promise may be delayed amid worries that Turkey’s aid in the Mideast would be at risk” is significantly changed. The lead paragraph, too, had gone through its own metamorphosis and read: “The Obama administration is hesitating;”

In an email I queried Richer by asking what was “the impetus and reasons behind the change”? In response, Richter referred me to the newspaper’s reader representative, or ombudsman, Jamie Gold who copy-pasted a boiler plate response explaining: “Partly it’s a matter of space: Limits in the newspaper don’t exist online. That means headlines can be longer; if there is a different word or phrasing that online editors want to use, they change it.” She went on to explain that “certain words included in headlines make it easier for search engines to detect.”

In reading the two versions, an eighth grader can distinguish between phrasing that is an editorial change and one that was done for SEO. The first version’s terse wording clearly says that Obama is backing off a campaign pledge. By using the word “wavers” in the headline and changing the sub-head from “amid warnings” to “amid worries” tones down the impact and alters the messaging on the piece.

Why the overnight change? After a second look, did the LA Times editors decide that the first version was, in fact, too terse and opted to tone it down? Or, were they asked to alter the headline by the White House, since the absence of any concrete comment from all federal agencies, including the president, the piece did not reflect the administration’s position?

The LA Times Vice-President of Communications Nancy Sullivan wrote in an email: “The headlines accompanying the same Los Angeles Times print and online story are often distinctly different, as the mediums are distinctly different. Editorial Web phrasing is designed to enable search engine optimization and often reflect fine-tuning of the storytelling. In this particular case, editors felt the later online headline better matched the piece.”

“Administration officials are considering postponing a presidential statement, citing progress toward a thaw in relations between Turkey and neighboring Armenia. Further signs of warming — such as talk of reopening border crossings — would strengthen argumen’s that a U.S. statement could imperil the progress,” wrote Richter in his LA Times article.

He also quoted National Security Council spokesperson Michael Hammer as saying: "At this moment, our focus is on how, moving forward, the United States can help Armenia and Turkey work together to come to terms with the past." He told Richter the “administration was ‘encouraged’ by improvemen’s in relations and believed it was ‘important that the countries have an open and honest dialogue about the past.’"

The NSC’s Hammer did not return my calls or emails inquiring about the “postponement” issue, as well as how the US intends to “help Armenia and Turkey work together to come to terms with the past,” as was told to Richter.

Meanwhile, in reviewing State Department briefings, on three occasions this month, the most recent of which was Wednesday, State Department spokesman Robert Woods put off commenting on specific questions about the Armenian Genocide and President Obama’s upcoming trip to Turkey.

Last week, in an Associate Press report (See Asbarez 3/16) regarding the same issue, a similar quote from the NSC was characterized as posing a dilemma for the Obama administration, rather than an outright wavering, or backing off, from the campaign promise.

Did the headline shuffle expose LA Times’ conjecture on the matter?

With the Genocide resolution already introduced this week in Congress and President Obama scheduled to visit Turkey on April 5, as well as the upcoming visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan to Armenia in mid-April, the 94th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide is one of the most anticipated ones in recent history. The community is vigilant on the outcome of all these events and will act accordingly once all pieces of the puzzle are in place.

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