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Newspapers make mistakes in their headlines more often than many people realize, but a few wrong headlines really stand out in newspaper history. Wrong headlines either report information radically inaccurately, or report events which never occurred. In the modern era, such headlines are sometimes caused by computer error, as technicians are eager to get news into print, and they miss something like a placeholder in a headline, or a wrong headline thrown up to get an idea of spacing.
Probably the most famous wrong headline in American history appeared on 3 November, 1948, when the Chicago Tribune proclaimed “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” In fact, Truman won the 1948 Presidential election in the United States, and there's a picture of the smirking President brandishing a copy of the infamous paper to prove it. While initially quite embarrassed, as one might imagine, the paper later took the incident in stride, turning it into a running joke.
Many wrong headlines are political in nature. Citizens demand information about elections and political issues constantly, so many newspapers make mistakes in their haste. Especially in the case of Presidential elections, it is common for two articles to be written ahead of time, allowing the paper to slot the winner's article in as soon as a winner is announced. This sometimes means that the wrong article is published, as in 1948 and 1916, when Howard Hughes was announced the winner of the Presidential election in several areas of the United States.
Political wrong headlines have also misreported various election results and candidates for the vice presidency, with Gerald Ford being announced on the Republican ticket in 1980 and Dick Gephardt in 2004, when neither man had accepted the slot. In local elections, it is common to see errors, especially at papers with tight deadlines.
Wrong headlines also focus on disasters of public interest, such as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the Sago Mine Disaster in 2006. In 1912, going on limited information, many newspapers confidently asserted that the ship had been saved; only the New York Times was willing to go out on a limb and say that the ship had sunk, later being proved correct. In 2006, several major media outlets accidentally inverted the numbers of saved and dead, proclaiming all but one miner was saved, when in fact the opposite was the case. In ongoing disasters, wrong headlines misreporting death tolls are very common.
Another common source for wrong headlines is the obituary page. Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur C. Clarke, Joe DiMaggio, Yasser Arafat, John Paul II, Benedict XV, and numerous others have been declared dead before their time. Erroneous obituaries are common when a major public figure is in a serious medical condition, and sometimes they are published entirely by mistake, as for instance on CNN's website in 2003.
"Dewey defeats Truman" is the nightmare for every paper. A friend of mine works for a newspaper and she said that's what happens when you don't hold the deadline and you go to press not knowing for sure what happened, but making an assumption. It will come back to bite you every time.
She was working on 9-11 and said the newsroom was a zoo. I can only imagine. She said everyone in the room was on the phone, trying to get a local story for deadline. She said they were being extra careful not to use headlines that were in any way misleading because of the gravity of the situation.
Sometimes, I'll see a local headline, though, and I'll wonder, "How did they let that one get by?"
Proofread, proofread, proofread. As a newsroom vet, I can tell you how easy it is to get something wrong in a big story on a tight deadline. That's why you need to have someone not involved in creating the stories to proofread for mistakes. Sometimes, you look over something long enough and you stop seeing the errors. It helps to have a fresh set of eyes on a headline or on a story.
My favorite segment on Leno was always "Headlines." I would look at some of the missteps and say, "There but for the grace of God goes every paper." It happens because humans are in charge, but some errors are just because an editor can't drop the ego long enough to admit a headline is wrong or misleading because he likes it and thinks it will sell papers.
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