When the Mayor starts talking about how he’s glad that the media is in the room, you know that you’re either about to be patted on the back or slapped in the face.
Guess which one happened on Wednesday.
Just prior to a break in the presentation of the 2018 tax-supported operating budget, Mayor Cam Guthrie took a moment before the assembled group of councillors, city staff, interested citizens, and yes, the media, to say that irresponsible headline writing in the press was sending the wrong message.
No, the City of Guelph was not raising taxes by nearly five per cent for 2018, he said. Those decisions haven’t been made yet, silly reporters, but your click bait obsessed oversimplification is surely giving the people around the horseshoe heartburn whenever messages are checked, or emails read.
Admittedly, if all you read of the Guelph Mercury Tribune article on the subject was the headline, “Guelph taxes could go up as much as 4.84 per cent in 2018,” then you might be under the impression that Guelph’s taxes might go up as high as 4.84 per cent in 2018.
Or even GuelphToday.com's headline "Initial budget recommendations call for 4.84 per cent tax increase.
Of course, the emphasis on that Tribune headline is “could”, and not “will”.
As outlined in the article that followed, the increase “could” be as high as 4.84 per cent if you add the 2.19 per cent increase in the base budget, to the 0.25 per cent increase in the board and services budget, to the 1.4 per cent in “expansion packages”, to the one per cent increase to the infrastructure levy.
Don’t blame the headline, or the headline writer, blame the math.
There’s a couple of things at play here. First of all, there is a sad trend for people to just read the headline, and not bother with the rest. Marshall McLuhan once said that, “People don't actually read newspapers. They step into them every morning like a hot bath.” If we update that, people don’t actually read internet news articles, they stick their finger in the bath to see if the water’s warm and then don’t take a bath.
Secondly, people want everything bottomlined for them. They don’t want to see the math, they just want to know what the sum is, and if you give them the sum first than what possible point is there to read the rest of the article. “4.84 per cent? That’s all I need to know. Now to register my disgust throughout the internet!”
I don’t want to relitigate last week’s column about our tax-itude, but sufficient to say that when people read a headline that suggests a 4.84 per cent, and they start to post, tweet, blog, rant and rave about it, then the facts and the narrative become two distinctly different life forms.
So Mayor Guthrie is right, the tax increase for 2018 is technically not 4.84 per cent anymore than having the raw ingredients of eggs, flour, and sugar means that you have a cake. But more importantly, the original headline is right because it’s not the press’ fault that people skipped the word “could” or re-read is as “will”.
At the same time, it’s not the mayor’s job to play ombudsman, or public editor. Salacious headline writing is a relatively minor irritate in the grand scheme of things, but suppose one-day Mayor Guthrie is embroiled in something considerably more scandalous. What will he tell us to do from the chair’s seat that day in council?
On the flip side, this is also about media literacy. People need to know that the headline isn’t the story, and in the news business, the headline is only ever occasionally written by the author themselves. And while the headline has always supposed to have be attention grabbing, in the social media age where news scrolls past your screen as quickly as it’s posted, you have to doubly stand out to be noticed.
And while newsrooms are constantly being asked to do more with less, the press must still uphold their own rigorous standards. CTV News Kitchener did a story about Wednesday’s budget meeting saying that this was council’s “first chance” to hear about 2018 budget details apparently unaware that the 2018 Non-Tax Supported Budget, Capital Budget, and 10-year Capital Forecast had already been passed.
Yes, gone are the days when the prestige of the news business was just assumed (if it ever existed in the first place). It’s hard to watch any TV news these days without feeling embarrassed for the people making it as they lean heavily on sloppy hot takes, partisan talking heads, and whatever trending ephemera washes up on the shores of their social media feed.
Then, when TV news covers actual hard news investigated by journalists, it’s usually thanks to the ground work of newspaper reporters under whom the ground is constantly shrinking even in this age of renewed support for big papers thanks to certain Cheeto-coloured politicians in the United States.
Back in council, I took the mayor’s critique with a certain sense of smug satisfaction knowing that I had not posted any presumptive headlines. Like with all council meetings, I took the holistic approach on Politico with a tepid headline about previewing the Nov. 8 meeting, on which the only two items were budget related, but still, I have a theme and I run with it.
The irony, of course, is that even though people always say they want that “Just the facts, ma’am” approach to the news, it’s the sensationalistic headlines that are more grabby than the informational ones. Hence the, “Guelph taxes could go up as much as 4.84 per cent in 2018” headline. That got your attention, right?
And you want people’s attention! Whether you’re a mayor or a media outlet, you want people to know things, even if it makes them mad. And while it might seem like a pain to have to explain to people one or two at a time that a tax increase of 4.84 per cent has not been approved, they have nonetheless been engaged in municipal politics, which remains, inexplicably, the most difficult level of politics to get people engaged in.
In other words, you’re welcome Mayor Guthrie.