At this point, I really, really wish that I didn't have to address the whole "who is to blame for bad headlines" thing again. I mean, your GetReligionistas have written so many posts about this issue in the past.
Let me make this comment again: (click here please).
Now, what's up? I have received several questions about the recent Washington Post "Acts of Faith" story about the remarks by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., in which -- in the aftermath of the San Bernardino massacre -- he urged qualified Liberty University to get legal permits to carry concealed weapons.
The problem is that it appears there were radically different headlines used on different versions of this story. In my opinion, what appears to have been the early headline is journalistically problematic, to say the least. Hold that thought.
But first, let me stress once again:
... It's important for readers to understand that reporters rarely write the headlines that accompany their stories. Editors and specialists at copy desks write the headlines. It's tough work, and I say that as someone who did that job for several years early in my career.
A good headline can really help a story. A bad one can warp the framework in which the reader encounters the ideas and fact in the text. Alas, that's just the way the business works.
Now, with that in mind, please listen to the full context of this very controversial Falwell quote -- using the YouTube file from CNN that is featured at the top of this post. Here is the quote as published in the Post:
“It just blows my mind that the president of the United States [says] that the answer to circumstances like that is more gun control,” he said to applause. “If some of those people in that community center had what I have in my back pocket right now …,” he said while being interrupted by louder cheers and clapping. “Is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know,” he said, chuckling.
“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he says, the rest of his sentence drowned out by loud applause while he said, “and killed them.”
“I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course,” he said. “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”
The crucial question is the precise meaning of terms such as "those Muslims" and "teach them a lesson."
When heard or read in context, it's clear that Falwell was speaking about the gunmen who attacked the "community center" in San Bernardino. He is talking about a very specific set of radicalized and violent Muslims, or others who attack innocents with the intent to kill.
Alas, there apparently was a Post headline at some point that said:
When reading that headline (this image is a screenshot from an index headline still in use on the Post site), there is no context -- no previous defining reference -- to provide meaning for the word "those."
Thus, some readers have interpreted this as a statement that Falwell wanted people to arm themselves for confrontations with all Muslims -- period.
Now, what did this earlier story say? I cannot answer that question because it appears that this earlier text is not online, since the story was expanded and developed as additional information was reported. The current report, at the end, says: (This story has been updated to reflect a new interview with Falwell and the statement from McAuliffe.)
The material from that new Falwell interview is significant, to say the least.
Falwell told The Washington Post on Saturday that he has had a concealed-carry permit for about a year, but decided for the first time Friday to carry a .25 pistol because of the attacks in San Bernardino on Wednesday. ...
Falwell said that when he referred to “those Muslims,” he was referring to Islamic terrorists, specifically those behind the attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino. “That’s the only thing I would clarify,” Falwell said. “If I had to say what I said again, I’d say exactly the same thing.”
Thus, the current headline states:
Jerry Falwell Jr.: ‘If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those’ Islamist terrorists
That's quite a difference.
Let me stress that the issue here is not whether journalists agree with Falwell's blunt words or with his actions. I would assume that my own views on gun control -- especially rapid-fire weapons -- are radically different than his.
The question is whether the initial headline, by stripping away the defining context of "those Muslims," left readers with an inaccurate view of what Falwell actually said.
It is good that the headline was changed. Period.
The first headline was totally unfair. The question is whether the Post editors needed to print a correction, rather than an updated headline. How many readers, and editors in other newsrooms, only saw the first version?
Here is a question for readers in the Washington, D.C., area since I have moved far from Beltway land. What did the headline say in the printed edition?