Editor’s Note: Confessions of a Once-Burned Headline Reader

We often lament around here the comments posted on our social-media pages by people who have clearly read only the headline of a story and not the story itself.

This isn’t everyone. Our analytics show that our readers spend a healthy amount of time reading individual stories. Thank you for this. We spend a healthy amount of time writing them with that in mind.

But on to the headline readers. I don’t consider myself to be one of those, but if I were, I certainly wouldn’t comment on something if I’d read only the headline. 

That was last week. This week, the headline of a press release that came to my email was, “Gov. Evers, DHS Announce Gender-Neutral Language Options for Parents to Be Added to Wisconsin Birth Certificates.”

Some headlines beg for misinterpretation. This headline certainly could have been better written, but that still doesn’t excuse the reader for not reading the story. I didn’t have time to read this press release, so I flagged it for later and moved on.

Not having read the story apparently didn’t prevent me from talking about it. I told a couple of friends and family members that Wisconsin now allows parents not to declare a child male or female on the birth certificate. That’s correct: Not only did I not read the press release, but I misinterpreted the headline I did read. 

It didn’t seem odd to me that parents would no longer need to declare on a birth certificate that the child is a boy or girl. Not much surprises me, and I also chalked it up to the way of an emerging future world. 

Others I told didn’t believe me, primary among them my partner. He didn’t think it was possible for this to happen. 

I insisted and went the other way. I wondered who had “invented” the concepts of “male” and “female” to begin with, and who had named them as such. He looked at me as if a bird had flown out of my mouth. We had a bit of a tiff, and though easily remedied, it was entirely unnecessary. 

The next day, I returned to the press release to do some digging into what it meant and learned the error of my way. It’s the parents who may identify in a gender-neutral way on birth certificates beginning July 1; it has nothing to do with the gender of the newborn. Specifically, birth forms in Wisconsin will be updated to include an option for “parent-parent” in addition to “mother-father.” The change reflects the administration’s commitment to gender-neutral terminology and recognition that families are diverse and should all be recognized and valued in state systems.

This experience showed me how easily misinformation can be spread. Fortunately, I didn’t share my thoughts on social media, so the damage was contained. But it’s a great example of a necessary requirement for commenting, debating or offering an opinion that should be a given but obviously is not: Read the story.