Joseph P. Porter

The Front Page Blog

Take Your Pick:
“6’4”, 289-Pound Aggressor Shot”
“Cop Kills Unarmed Black Youth”

I don’t usually think of taking the media to task, and I don’t really ever think of calling reporters “the liberal media.”

But there’s a first time for everything.

The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is one of those cases where the way one perceives the action that took place is strongly influenced by the words used to discuss the action and its participants.

Some facts:

Michael Brown was

  • 6’4” tall;
  • 289 pounds;
  • Black (African-American, if you wish);
  • Aggressive (video taken just minutes before the confrontation with Officer Darren Wilson shows Brown throwing a convenience-store clerk into a display rack as Brown was stealing cigars);
  • Unarmed;
  • 18 years old (that age where one can be thought of as a “youth” or as a “young adult”).

The typical headline about the incident goes something like this:

Cop Kills Unarmed Black Youth

Now, it is important for a print/digital reporter to give a headline that is (a) succinct, and (b) engaging.  The headline needs to attract the reader to actually read the article, so it has to “grab” the reader’s attention – get the reader’s interest.  Fair enough.

Unfortunately, the “Cop Kills Unarmed Black Youth” headline evokes a particular scenario: a young black male is confronted by an armed police officer (at least one) and is gunned down in cold blood even though he posed no threat to the officer.

Why unfortunate?

The headline tells the reader almost nothing about the facts of the situation, but does give a particularly biased perspective to it – the headline speaks to helplessness (cop kills youth), injustice (establishment force against the black minority), unfairness (unarmed youth) and a denial of opportunity (kills). 

Stated as it is, the headline – while saying nothing about the situation other than the outcome of the encounter – stacks the reader’s emotional deck.  One is inclined to look at the situation in a particular way before any facts are known of the situation.  The headline does much to make up the reader’s mind before the reader has had a chance to examine whatever facts are available, as well as any uncertainties that may exist in the situation.

In many ways, Darren Wilson was tried in the press before any facts were known.  Expectations were formed on the press’ initial characterization of the incident.  The grand jury’s findings ended up flying in the face of those expectations.

Of course, media could have presented a different spin with an alternate headline (which I have not seen anywhere):

Officer Shoots 6’4”, 289-Pound, Assailant

By selecting certain different terms, the reader sees the incident from a different perspective – the policeman is seen more as a potential victim (of an assailant), the assailant is certainly threatening – or at least can be viewed as a threatening person – (6’4”, 289- pound), the officer’s act is viewed more neutrally, and as an act of self-defense (officer shoots … assailant).  There is no mention of race or age, all elements of the situation are there, but the focus of headline is the officer.

[I could go on and on about the use of the word “Cop.”  I don’t care for it, myself.  It seems to carry a somewhat disparaging connotation, although it is not a pejorative term like “pig.”  “Cop” is short for the word “copper,” a word used in the 19th century to refer to police officers’ badges, which were made of … copper.  Anymore it seems that the term has a kind of snarky feel to it.  I think the media term should be “police,” or “police officer.”  But that’s just me.]

I’m not trying to say that the alternate headline is better than the initial one – only that headlines can be constructed to express not only the nitty-gritty of a story, but that they can also have the effect of bending the readers’ attitudes towards the story, thus affecting how one will perceive the whole story – all without reference to any facts in the encounter.

When the media chooses an emotional – or emotive – headline, they risk being labelled “liberal” (or “conservative”); more importantly, the perform a disservice to the public: they sell an attitude, rather than providing information. 

Is it possible to provide an attitude-free (or attitude-neutral) headline that provides only facts?  Try this:

Ferguson, MO, Policeman Shoots Area Man

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