My email and voicemail filled up over the weekend with readers upset over a headline verb choice that would not have caused a ripple three months ago.
Atop an article listing the teachers whose skills and commitment made them finalists for the Horry County district’s annual Teacher of the Year honors, was the headline: “Teachers shoot for yearly honor.”
The headline writer had no intention of invoking the tragedy in Newtown, but many felt the use of the word showed insensitivity at best.
Readers James and Patricia McGarry probably summed up the reactions best: “The tragedy of Newtown and specifically Sandy Hook Elementary speaks for itself about how there has been a preponderance of violence and lack of gun control in this country. The Sun News was the last place I thought I would find a need to remind the staff of the need to [be] sensitive to words or terms that might remind us all of that horror.”
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Our headline over the news that Pope Benedict had announced he would resign, “Pope Benedict to Quit,” also provoked some readers to respond that the word “quit” was disrespectful to Catholics in general and the Pope in particular.
One caller, who didn’t leave a name, left a message that we should have said the Pope planned to “step down.”
Writing headlines for print publications is one of the most difficult tasks journalists face. They must summarize the gist of an article in the space of about six words. One of those words should be an active verb. And oh yes, they shouldn’t split infinitives on different lines or use strange abbreviations to get things to fit.
Twenty-twenty hindsight is a wonderful thing, and we all agreed at our morning and afternoon standup meetings, at which we critique previous editions, that if we could do it over again, we wouldn’t have used the word “shoot.” Other verbs would have worked and fit as well in that instance.
But to demonstrate how easy it can be to use a word that has taken on a new and ominous tone, I had to rework the previous paragraph three times to keep from using the word “aim” or “aiming” to explain my meaning, for fear that would be interpreted as further evidence of our insensitivity.
In the case of the Pope’s news, “steps down” would not have fit in the space, so “quit” had to fit the bill. But again, no disrespect was meant.
Another sign of the times
If you drove past our building on Monday, you may have noticed something different about us: The sign in front of our building is flashing messages again.
The old message board, with its outdated parts and technology, finally gave up the ghost some time ago, but it took us a while to settle on the replacement. We’re glad to be able to share tidbits of news and other information again.
Visit a news meeting
I’ve issued this invitation before, but the reactions to headlines and other recent features make it feel like the time is right to reach out again.
If you’d like to see how we make decisions on what articles to pursue, and then where to place them online and on the printed pages, you are welcome to join us.
We meet at 9:30 every weekday morning to look over the previous day’s efforts and look ahead to the day’s priorities, then we gather at 3 p.m. to see how our plans played out.
If you’d like to sit in, please email or call me so we can make sure we have enough chairs.
I hope you’ll take me up on the offer. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll keep reading and keep reminding us of what we need to do better.