The curse of writing a headline

Headlines can make or break the understanding of a problem.

Here’s an Associated Press headline on a story out this morning:

One in 10 with a mortgage face foreclosure

What’s missing is a list of definitions. What does it mean to “face foreclosure?” In this study from the Mortgage Bankers Association, the Associated Press has defined it as being late for a payment. One in 10 people, according to the story, wqw late. But that calls for another definition: What is “late?” Is it people who didn’t make it at all? Is it people who made it but made it late?

Technically, I suppose, I am facing foreclosure. The only thing that can stop it, is me making a payment, which — fortunately — I did this month.

But deeper in the story is the real story. If you define “facing foreclosure” as people who have received a first notice of foreclosure, the number is actually 1 in 100.

And the percentage of loans receiving their first notice of foreclosure also dipped. That fell to 1.1 percent in the second quarter from 1.2 percent in the first quarter

Wait a second! It dipped?

Yes, according to the same story:

In a worrisome sign, the number of homeowners starting to have problems with their mortgages rose after trending downward last year. The number of homes in the foreclosure process fell slightly, the first drop in four years.

Are you following that? The number of homeowners starting to have problems is rising. The number of homes in the foreclosure process is falling.

It defies a simple headline.

  • Shane

    So….this is good? Good that people are having more problems paying their mortgages when they couldn’t pay them at all last year? As in, it is a good problem to have? Or does it mean that we’re going to see a rise in foreclosures soon because those people who are having trouble paying will soon not be able to pay.

  • Bob Collins

    Shane, it doesn’t mean it’s good. It means it’s convoluted. It’s difficult to assess the magnitude of the problem and to plan for it accordingly, when you have such a poor organization of facts.

  • Shawn

    Bob, I get what your saying about the absence of

    real Data but until the Banks are actually

    Held accountable we will never see the true numbers.

  • Bob Collins

    That’s a good point. And if we don’t have real data, we shouldn’t be writing headlines that are inconsistent with the data we have.

  • Shawn

    I don’t necessarily believe that it should not be written about . I just think we need to stop portraying people’s lives as statistical data and realize that

    a failed system is a failed system.

  • Al

    Bob, you neglected to point out my biggest pet peeve with articles like this. They are commenting on a change from 1.1 to 1.2 as meaningful. Maybe it is, but if these are estimated numbers rather than actual counts of absolutely correct numbers the ‘change’ gets lost in the error. And that’s to say nothing of the historical noise in the measurement. So many news stories on economic reports, medical studies, and education test scores include comments on the meanings of increases and decreases when they get lost in the noise anyway. I have yet to hear a reporter say something like “The factor rose by 1%, but the typical variability in the measurement is much greater, so there was no meaningful change.” Maybe that’s because ‘no change’ isn’t compelling news, despite the fact that it is accurate.