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Great Moments In Journal Sentinel Blogs: It’s Not Newsworthy

June 10, 2009

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to notice the Journal Sentinel’s strangely worded headline this morning about yesterday’s unfortunate shooting.  Kathy Schenck, writer of JS blog Words to the Wise, justifies the headline “Bicyclist Shoots 2 Police Officers” as such:

Why, they wondered, does his mode of transportation matter? Would we say “Car driver shoots 2 police officers?” “Pedestrian shoots 2 police officers?” Do we have a bias against bike riders?

His mode of transportation matters because it’s unusual, and that’s a definition of news. We’ve all heard of people being shot from cars, or in alleys, or in their homes. Part of what makes the story different is officers being shot by someone riding a bike, an activity not associated with criminals.

Does the headline make bicyclists look bad? I don’t think so. We have written “Motorist shoots officer” or “Officer shoots motorist”  in headlines to give readers an idea of the circumstances of the shooting. Headline writers need to convey as much information as possible in a few words. And active voice (Bicyclist shoots officers) is clearer and more compelling than passive voice (2 officers are shot) and provides more information.

The problem I have with this justification is that the shooter was stopped by the officers and not actually on his bike when he shot them. Including the irrelevant fact that he was a bicyclist is comparable to a hypothetical headline such as, “Gay Man Shoots Officers.” The reader is left to wonder what is relevant about the descriptor being used and in both instances would be left with an inaccurate impression of the story. I’d understand better if the shooter was riding his bike while shooting at the officers, but that’s not what their story describes.  That makes the headline less than helpful. Call it minor tone-deafness at worst, but it’s still a mistake.

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One Comment
  1. Eric permalink
    June 11, 2009 9:20 am

    Wow JS Wow

    Immediately after the shooting, I actually was prepared for the headline to focus on something like the shooters sexual orientation.

    But instead to focus on his biking, that caught me off guard.

    And it just draws attention to the headline they did not run. A headline that might focus on something worth dicussing (especially in light of our AG’s stance), such as the fact that the man had a gun, in this city, and then he used that gun to shoot two police officers.

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