A case study for bias in headlines (Teenager shot as an intruder while accidentally sneaking into the wrong home)

camboy_72 on the Urban Planning subreddit posted a link to a Fox News article about a death in Virginia. What appears to have actually happened is:  a High School junior went out with his friends and got drunk, so he had to sneak back home, and came in through a back window.  But he accidentally snuck into the wrong house.  The homeowner, hearing the burglar alarm, got his gun, warned the teen, fired a warning shot, then, when the teen was walked past him, up the stairs, shot and killed him. On the Urban Planning subreddit, camboy_72 titled the link: Yet another (tragic) reason to despise cookie-cutter subdivisions.  To that point, Allison Klein and Michael Allison Chandler at the Washington Post write,

A day later, Caleb’s friends and family were trying to figure out how this promising, well-liked athlete, who stayed out of trouble and generally listened to his parents, could have died in such a way.

“They have the exact same staircase as us, the exact same carpet. Caleb clearly thought he was in his own house,” said his father, Shawn Gordley, who provided the account of his son’s night. “He probably stumbled around and was just trying to go to his room.”

(emphasis mine)

That one pretty obviously shows extreme bias, but it also came from an explicitly and openly biased source:  a subreddit about urban planning.  I agree with that point, by the way -- it's seriously screwed up to live in an environment where you can't tell your own home from the other ones on the street.  And while we're on the point, this is also a really good case study for why people shouldn't have guns in their homes.  Intruder ≠ violent attacker.

But I'm more interested in the way Fox headlined the story.  For a baseline, this is how the Washington Post titled the Associated Press story:

Sheriff says homeowner fired warning shot at teen intruder who mistakenly entered wrong home

And here's how Fox headlined the same story:

Homeowner fired warning before fatally shooting teen intruder, sheriff says

The story after that is the same, but I've said before and I cannot stress this enough, most people, most of the time, mostly just read headlines.  Especially if those headlines confirm our prejudices about the world, we tend not to feel like it's necessary to read past that.  The Washington Post headline contains enough relevant details that the point is clear to someone just scanning headlines on the main page: "Teenager made a mistake, got himself shot."  Whatever your views on gun control, that's a sufficiently complex idea to encourage reasonable thought.  The Fox headline, on the other hand, offers "Homeowner kills hooligan invading his house."

This failure, the failure of headlines, is not a trivial thing.  It's a major way that news sources either contribute to, or undermine, the prejudices of their audience.  Fox's headline defends the worldview in which the status quo is "Guns in the home save lives and property."  Whether or not that's a legitimate view, the particular story in question absolutely does not support it.  The view that this story supports is "Guns in the home kill innocent people."

The truth, obviously, is a complex combination of the two points, and a well-informed public would form opinions based on the facts of the degree to which the former or the latter is more true, as well as their own views about which is more important.  Fox, rather than encouraging that dialogue, is pursuing the anti-informational quality that  encourages their readers to deny even the existence of cases in which their status quo is, if not contradicted, even ever made complex.

People I'm pissed I didn't learn about in school: Nellie Bly

Tumblr user Jawdust posted a list, titled  

Why you should be in passionate horny love with Elizabeth ‘Nellie Bly’ Cochrane,

 

and she makes a really good case. Here's an excerpt:

  • This is where we get to the good shit. Age 18, she wrote a letter-to-the-editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch bitchslapping the everloving fuck out of a sexist ballsack of an article entitled ‘What Girls Are Good For’.
  • The editor was so goddamn wooed by her razor-sharp tongue that he RAN AN AD asking her to identify herself. Elizabeth owned up, and was hired instantaneously, her badassery radiating from her pores and intoxicating all within a twenty mile radius.
  • Working under the pen-name Nellie Bly, Elizabeth kicked the butts of morons everywhere, writing articles aimed at social justice, particularly labour laws to protect working ‘girls’ and reform of Pennsylvania’s divorce law, which greatly favoured men.
  • Not content with changing the world from behind her desk, Elizabeth became a founding mother of investigative journalism. She was expelled from Mexico for exposing political corruption, and henceforth wrapped in cotton wool by her editors. Infuriated by their mollycoddling, Lizzie left them a note essentially telling them to fuck themselves and hot footed it to NYC. She was still only 23.

Within the post I originally saw this reblogged from, Tumblr user Absenzio writes:

I’m so pissed right now because I NEVER, EVER found her in a single of the history and literature books I studied on. Fuck that shit, this woman needs a whole entire chapter in every single book in print

I agree, Absenzio.  Also, there's a website called Nellie Bly Online that has all of her articles.  So, I will be reading some of them soon.

I've written a (very mean) set of tips for journalism students

I'm the copy editor on my college's newspaper, and every two weeks I get about ten emails each with four or five attachments of articles from the journalism classes.  I have to edit all of them.  (Well, that's not true.  Some of them I just send back with a big NOPE.) This week, I kept a separate file open while I did it.  I wrote out a series of tips, in hopes of passing it off to the teachers.

It's not okay to give to the teachers.  So instead, I've published it here.

Tips for journalism students and other people submitting things to other people who are going to have to reformat those things so they aren't a pain in the ass [NSFW language]

An excerpt (below the fold because language):

9. Check to make sure the pronouns agree with each other.  If you say "Everyone," you have to say "Them," not "Him or her."

10. When you're trying to avoid clichés, don't write the cliché but swap out one of the words for a word with a similar meaning.  It doesn't make your language sound fresher -- you're just generally replacing a shitty sentence that makes sense with a shitty sentence that doesn't.

11. No, but seriously.  The punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.  There are few things more goddamn annoying than having to copy an editor on a new draft of something because everything was fine but you put all your fucking periods outside their quotation marks.

12. You're fucking allowed to use contractions.

Update about responsibilities this semester

So I'm back on the school newspaper this semester, and tonight is the first production night.  Or, rather, production day, going into night.  I got here at about noon, and it's almost eight, and it is roughly all I've done today. I mean, I've done other stuff too, but that other stuff primarily consisted of dicking around on the internet while I waited for other people to get their pages finished so I could edit them.  (I'm the copy editor.)  I tried to get some of my blogging done, but a significant portion of my writing energy and attention was diverted by the paper.

So, it's going to be hard to keep up with this blogging schedule, again.  I'm not cutting down on the minimum wordcount -- I did that once already, when I was as busy last semester as I'm going to be this one -- but I'm going to have to change around my habits to keep up with it.

So, Minecraft is probably going to have to take a back seat soon.  Also probably a lot of YouTube.

Or maybe there will be advantages to having my time structured again -- I had plenty to do this vacation, but it was all under my control when it got done and when I had free time.  Maybe being at school often will force me to get my work done earlier, and I can go home and relax?  (That would be nice.  It's very stressful to end a day frantically finishing up the things I put off.)

So, this isn't a rules update or anything.  Just an observation.

Talk to you on Monday.

Norway does justice right

(via Boing Boing) The New York Times reports on the Norwegian government's decision to treat the trial of Anders Breivik, the terrorist who orchestrated multiple violent attacks in July 2011:

One year ago Sunday, Norway experienced one of the worst extremist attacks Western Europe has witnessed since World War II when Anders Behring Breivik systematically killed 77 people and injured hundreds of others.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s reaction was unequivocal. He declared that Norway’s strongest weapon in responding to this was to employ more openness and more democracy.

Norwegians took up his call. Neither politicians nor the media turned it into a partisan political issue. The public reacted with grief but did not call for extraordinary measures. And the state chose to prosecute Brevik in an ordinary public court with full media coverage.

[...]

Virtually all modern forms of extremism accuse liberal Western democratic systems of being hypocritical and, ultimately, weak. Al Qaeda portrays the West as anti-Islamic imperialists masquerading as promoters of democracy. Right wing extremism suggests the West is committing cultural suicide through its lax judicial system and naïve multiculturalism.

Both have committed horrific acts designed to bait us into betraying our values and making them martyrs. In fact, it is remarkable to see the many similarities between these two sorts of extremism in their disdain for diversity and their indiscriminate violence against civilians.

In this context, it is a mistake to treat crimes committed by extremists as exceptions, subject to special processes. They must be held accountable in accordance with and to the full extent of the law. Hiding suspects from public view merely dehumanizes the perpetrators and undermines any moral or judicial lessons.

By contrast, prosecuting extremists who have committed crimes in a public courtroom makes it all the more shockingly clear that their horrific acts were undertaken by human beings, and that all of us must work every day to combat the ideas of extremism.

The whole article is amazing -- a beautiful outline of the ways in which a country ought to handle tragedy, ways radically in opposition to the way we handle it in the US.  I couldn't help thinking, while I was reading the post, "Wouldn't it be great to live in one of the grown-up countries like Norway?"

Here's a link to the article.