Hed: (n) Newsroom Jargon for Headlines

Headlines are tricky. They have to grab flighty readers’ attention, tell a story, and hopefully even squeeze in a witticism. The smallest choices affect readers’ first impressions and, sometimes, their only take on the story. Once a week, we analyze the different ways news outlets present the same story.

The Tale:

On Dec. 8, Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced that black rights activist Viola Desmond would be the first Canadian woman to appear on the front of a Canadian banknote when the new $10 bill rolls out.

The Heds:

Who is Viola Desmond? The first Canadian woman to grace the front of a banknote” (Global News)

History! Canada is Putting a Black Woman Activist on Their New $10 Bill” (Essence)

How civil rights icon Viola Desmond helped change the course of history” (CBC News)

It’s important to put Viola Desmond into historical context” (Toronto Star)

The Take:

In 1946, Viola Desmond was jailed and fined for refusing to give up her seat in the “whites-only” section of a theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She then made two unsuccessful applications to the province’s Supreme Court to fight the fine. It was only in 2010, 45 years after her death, that she was granted a posthumous pardon by the Nova Scotia lieutenant-governor.

The Global headline assumes Canadian readers are ignorant about Desmond’s historic contributions. While it may be true that many Canadians were only introduced to Desmond’s legacy through this year’s heritage minute, for many others she has always been a prominent figure, banknote or not. The presumption in this headline speaks volumes as to who Global believes its audience to be.

While Global and many other outlets emphasized that Desmond is the first woman to be featured on a banknote, Essence highlights the significance of having a Black woman on official currency. In contrast, there were several other headlines which made no reference to Desmond’s blackness or civil rights contributions.

CBC put Desmond’s historic role front and center. Interestingly, the subhead to this piece is “N.S. woman refused to give up seat at movie theatre 9 years before Rosa Parks’ famous act of defiance.” Much of the media coverage around Desmond referred to her as “the Canadian Rosa Parks” or reiterated that Desmond’s battle came first. But when the last segregated Black school in Canada was closed in 1983—in fact, it was in New Glasgow—It seems disingenuous for Canadian media to boast about Desmond speaking up before Parks.

The Star published its piece several days after Morneau’s announcement about the new $10 bill. As the headline suggests, writer Cheryl Thompson urges readers to be critical of the congratulatory media coverage that imagines the announcement as a victory for diversity in Canada. While Canada celebrates this milestone, it should also remind us to examine the history of segregation beyond Desmond’s single story.