Is This New York Times Headline Offensive to Chickens?

Slate's Culture Blog
March 4 2014 4:03 PM

Is This New York Times Headline Offensive to Chickens?

coddled_hens
New York Times "Coddled" Headline Triggers Commenter Debate

Screenshot from nytimes.com

The people who comment on New York Times articles are, as a rule, among the calmer, less excitable commenters on the Internet. But today many of them are in a huff about what they see as a cruel headline: “California’s Coddled Hens Trigger Interstate Feud.”

The accompanying article, by Stephanie Strom, is about Missouri’s lawsuit to block California’s requirement that all eggs sold in the West Coast state be produced by chickens with enough room to spread their wings. Commenters argue, correctly, that describing such treatment as “coddling” is hyperbole. (The common alternative, battery cages so small that hens can’t even stand up in them, are widely regarded as inhumane.) “These hens are not coddled,” points out Karin, from Michigan. “They are still in cages all their lives.” Nick, from New York, makes a more pointed argument: “‘Coddled’ hens? Since when it [sic] giving a living animal enough room to freely move about her cage coddling? This is basic decency ....” The word “coddled” appears 23 times, and counting, in the discussion section on the article.

Advertisement

By comparison, it appears in the article itself zero times—not even in the headline, which is different on the article page than it is on the New York Times homepage. (At Slate, we refer to the hyperlinked headlines on the homepage as “promo headlines,” and they’re often different from the headlines that appear on article pages.) Strom is the victim—or, you might argue, beneficiary—of an overzealous homepage editor, who, in attempting to sum up her article in a pithy way (and perhaps make a pun about coddled eggs), missed the point slightly.

We at Slate are no strangers to commenters accusing us of writing misleading promo headlines to get people to click on articles. But, as is the case here, such headlines tend to distract from the content of the article in question. Strom opens her story with tongue planted firmly in cheek:

Hens in California are living the good life. Many can now lay their eggs in oversize enclosures roomy enough to stand up, lie down—even extend their wings fully without touching another bird.

Anyone who doesn’t perceive the sarcasm in this paragraph needs to have his moral compass examined. Of course, the question of whether sarcasm belongs in a reported news story in the paper of record is up for debate. When delivered in writing rather than in speech, sarcasm has a tendency to be misunderstood, by readers and headline writers alike.

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 23 2014 12:43 PM Occupy Wall Street How can Hillary Clinton be both a limousine liberal and a Saul Alinsky radical?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 12:36 PM Krispy Kreme Stuffed Half a Million Calories Into One Box of Doughnuts
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 23 2014 11:33 AM High-Concept Stuff Designed to Remind People That They Don’t Need Stuff  
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 11:48 AM Punky Brewster, the Feminist Punk Icon Who Wasn’t
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google Exec: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.