When a newspaper apologizes for publishing an accurate headline

After the tragic ambush murders of multiple police officers in Dallas recently, many of the same old conversations were kicked off in the media. These included the usual recriminations, warnings and misdirection which accompany any such incident, but for once there was at least some level of consensus as to who did it and why. The name was provided fairly quickly and the “why” portion of the coverage was available from the recorded conversations between the shooter and hostage negotiators. (At least until the bomb throwing robot showed up. Good job, sparky.) One unexpected consequence, however, turned up in Tennessee, where a newspaper found themselves having to issue an apology for publishing a headline which included a direct quote from the killer. (Fox News)

A newspaper in Memphis quickly apologize after protestors complained about its choice of headline in the wake of the deadly police shooting in Dallas.

“Gunman targeted whites,” read the lead story headline in the Commercial Appeal, a member of the USA Today network. The headline was accurate, as Dallas gunman Micah Xavier Johnson explicitly talked about wanted to kill white police officers before he was eliminated via robot bomb.

That didn’t stop protestors from gathering outside the paper’s office in downtown Memphis on Wednesday to express their displeasure, some holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter.”

Commercial Appeal editor Louis Graham quickly apologized after meeting with the protestors, and wrote an editorial titled, “We got it wrong.”

In case you’re feeling as if you must be missing something here, you didn’t. That was essentially the entire story. The shooter told law enforcement as a direct quote that he wanted to kill white people, particularly white cops. Nobody coerced the statement out of him. He just put it out there for the world to digest. The Commercial Appeal in Memphis ran a short headline stating exactly that fact. And then the Black Lives Matter protesters showed up outside their offices, so the editor – Louis Graham – quickly ran to his keyboard to issue a full throated apology for printing something which he again noted was factually accurate as part of the retraction.

Graham’s “excuse” for how this exercise in what used to be referred to as journalism made it into print is shocking, but the steps he plans to take in ensuring that no such further truth makes it into 26 point type on the front page is even more embarrassing.

The checks and balances in place to avoid just this type of disconnect didn’t work that night for a variety of reasons. Too few people looked at the front page before it rolled off our presses. We’ve taken steps to correct that. But the larger challenge is recruiting a diverse enough staff to better reflect the city we cover. We continue to work on that and will be more introspective about how we do our jobs.

The editor’s comment about better reflecting the city we cover is a call-back to his introduction, where he points out that the headline was particularly offensive because it was printed, “in a city with a 65 percent African American population.” This is apparently the current state of American journalism. The newspaper printed a fact, but that fact was unacceptable based on the demographics of the people who might potentially see it. Was it “lacking in context” as Graham describes it? Not particularly. This wasn’t a story about police shootings of black suspects. It was about a mass assassination and the motive of the killer. But even if the background is to be considered part of the story, since when do titles carry the responsibility of providing all of the context? That’s why you’re supposed to read the entire article once the headline tips you off as to the story’s contents.

Do you wonder why trust in the media is essentially at all time lows? Look no further. Why would you trust the decisions of editorial boards if this is how they choose to screen the truth?


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