Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Headlines, sloppy editing fuel sensationalism

From the editor: The thoughtful comments below are from my Park University colleague Gary Bachman, and refer to my previous post (see below). He certainly has a valid point. Aggregators that scan headlines and pick out keywords (without context) are certainly a problem as well. --SY

As I see it, a significant part of the problem is not the content of journalitic work but the marketing / headlines attributed to such work. The reality is that many more people quickly read headlines, drawing their own conclusions without actually reading the article. E-Journalism has ( I presume) only magnified this effect. My ISP Homepage chronicles "World News," National News," Kansas News," and Missouri News." Click on the headline and you are taken to to that article in some other venue. I will admit that I have often ben drawn to particular "headlines" only to discover significantly different content, political commentary posted as news, or poorly researched content from remote sources.

The soldier in the Temple shooting had been less than honorably discharged from the army 13 year earlier. But that "label" has some draw ( and thus generates "traffic." It also suggests a potential link and compels us to paint pictures with our minds. But he could easily have been labled as "high school graduate," "musician," "jilted lover," or "Chick-Fil-a Customer." (sorry, couldn't resist) But "soldier" easily paints a picture that draws us in like the trailer for the new Stalone & Swartzenager action movie. (In fairness it seems that "soldiers" today are increasingly being marketed as our otherwise generic, sympathetic, deserving, and psychiatrically vulnerable neighbor or relation.

Headlines generate images designed to capture our attention. This process of editing is sometimes sloppy, sometimes reckless and sometimes quite intentional.

On Monday I recieved two e-mail alerts from academic web sites that I frequent, about a shooting at Texas A&M. The headline was also prominent on my ISP home page. But after clicking on all three links I found a different story. I posted the following content back to all three sources.

"A word of caution about "headlines." Legislators in a number of states are pushing to restructure "concealed carry" (firearms) laws to allow students and faculty to carry concealed firearms into their classrooms for self-defense. Given the willingness today for folks to embrace any rumor (or otherwise verifiable lie) that supports their cause, it is incumbent upon us as educators to be clear about FACTS. A simple review of the few known facts about this incident (available already at the time of the original post here) reveals that this did not happen on the campus of Texas A& M, and thus far (an additional 2 hours later) there is no hint that the gunman or those shot had anything more than a coincidental relationship with the university. Indeed, and I suspect at least partially in response to our litigious society, the university exercised abundant caution in sending out a broadcast text warning to its students: but again this did not happen on campus.

--Gary Bachman

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