Journalists and editors these days apparently lack the facility to write cogent headlines that convey the meaning of the associated news story unambiguously.
Recently, a good friend’s six year-old child was the victim of a minor shark bite, which he received while wading in knee-deep water at the beach during a Kindergarten outing. As there have been many shark bites off Florida east coast beaches of late, the local media wanted to make a big deal of it. It was indeed a big deal to the kid, who received eight stitches at the emergency room, and perhaps more so to his mom, but one local TV station felt it should be embellished by the following misleading, ambiguous, and alarming headline in the original report on its web site:
Shark Bites Child’s Leg Off New Smyrna Beach
The boy’s older sister was the first to note the ambiguity, finding it hilarious. Meanwhile, I had emailed the article to several friends to let them know that the incident occurred. I didn’t add a note to say that the tyke was doing well, as the article eventually got around to saying that, and the video interview showed him walking with his mom, leg taped up, but animated, loquacious, and clearly enjoying being the center of attention.
My friend who is an English professor also made note of the ambiguous headline, stating that it would be worthy of submission to Reader’s Digest. I received emails from most of the others to whom I had sent the article and I let them know that all was well. However, I then received a voice mail from a friend who was severely shaken—as emotional as I had ever experienced him.
That friend had received my email on his Wi-Fi iPod, and seeing the headline on the small screen and my note to the effect that it was my friend’s child, he was quite taken aback. He clearly read the headline as a shark-facilitated amputation. He had just had dinner with me and my friend recently, and wanted to know what he could do in this tragic situation.
The mood created by the equivocal headline instantly swung from frivolous to grave.
I quickly returned my friend’s call to let him know that it wasn’t as it seemed in the headline. That left him relieved at first, but angry later. I would be, too. This sort of sensationalist crap—the “if it bleeds, it leads” school of news editing—hurts people.
A few days later, I noted that the TV station had changed the article’s headline. It now reads:
Shark Bites Child’s Leg At Volusia Beach
Undoubtedly, they received complaints. It wouldn’t surprise me if people complained because they were wanting more gore than was the actual situation—they’re conditioned by the sleazy news to crave blood and seek it out. They were probably disappointed in this case.
The boy and his mom are doing fine.