June 15, 2007

Newspaper headlines: how to lie and get away with it

Note to the media: If you fail to tell the whole truth, then you're still lying!!

That's why the courts ask witnesses to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Omitting a crucial fact when reporting a story can change the entire perception of the event.

Additional note to the media: Headlines are part of your story! They should be subject to the same conditions as the rest of the article.

The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists states:

"Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context."

Thanks to KC Dog Blog for the following info. I would normally just link to KC's post, but I wanted to expand a bit on this.

In Washington State, on June 13, an Appeals Court judge ruled that a man's dog, which he used to attack a police officer, could be considered a deadly weapon.

The short version of the story is from the Tacoma Olympian and the longer version from the Clark County Columbian.

Here are the two headlines (emphasis mine):

Olympian: "Court says pit bull dog is deadly weapon"

Columbian: "Judge says pit bulls are deadly weapons"

Now, here's the text from the stories (emphasis mine). In the Columbian, this text is quite far down in the article.

OIympian: "The court says a dog is a deadly weapon because it can be used to cause death or substantial bodily harm."

Columbian: " 'A dog is an instrument that can be used to cause death or substantial bodily harm,' wrote (Judge David) Armstrong. The decision didn't specify a legal difference between pit bulls or any other breed."

So, the judge never actually singled out "pit bulls" as dangerous weapons. According to both reports, he said that dogs may cause death or substantial bodily harm.

Agreed, it is partially the truth that this particularly "pit bull" has now been classified by the judge as a dangerous weapon. But that is not the whole truth.

The dog was not ruled as a dangerous weapon because of what type of dog it was. The judge clearly identified the entire species (dog) as having the potential to cause harm or death. This man was charged and convicted of assault with a dangerous weapon simply because he allowed his dog (regardless of breed) to attack a police officer.

This story reminds me of the newspaper reports about the Hoskins family in Hillsboro, Oregon, in August 2004. The couple were eventually sentenced to three years in jail for using their dog to discipline their children by allowing it to attack them.

There were a number of inflammatory headlines at the time, most of which I can't find now. But this one from the Corvallis Gazette is a good example (emphasis mine).

Headline: "Couple face jail for letting dog attack kids"

Introduction: "A Hillsboro couple face at least three years in prison after pleading guilty to felony assault for letting their part-pit bull dog attack their children as discipline."

Text: "The dog, Nigel, a mix of pit bull, Doberman pinscher, German shepherd and Labrador, has been euthanized."

Wow, must have been the "pit bull" part that attacked the kids! Couldn't have anything to do with the fact that the dog had been trained and encouraged to use its teeth on seven and eight year old children!

So, looking further, I find a newswire blurb in the Washington Post (one of the most read newspapers in the world):

"HILLSBORO, Ore. -- A couple faces at least three years in prison for disciplining their children by letting their part-pit bull dog attack them."

Nothing about the true mix of the dog.

So now, this story gets to go around the world, courtesy of one of the planet's most popular news organizations, with only the word "pit bull" anywhere, even in the text. Thousands of people will have read that little Washington Post note and the only thing they will have noticed is "PIT BULL"!

So, as the title of this post says, headlines are a way to lie and get away with it.

-- END --


Conners said...

Excellent post Steve and all so true!
I just posted about a former OPP Officer going to court for an article about him and his dog during 9-11 which was mostly truth with additional untruths. We have a right to factual journalism, not fiction or let the reporters pay for their errorous ways.

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