When is a headline just a headline?
And when is a headline, in fact, an editorial comment?
A reader’s email to GetReligion about a Washington Post story published today raises that issue.
Here is the headline in question:
This ‘good Christian’ prosecutor is overlooking domestic violence charges for same-sex couples
The reader, someone I respect, asks: “Since when do neutral newspapers mock the subjects of their stories in their headlines?”
My first reaction (before clicking the link) was that, yes, the headline contained more attitude than necessary and seemed slanted against the prosecutor.
But after reading the story (which is generally a nice thing to do before forming an opinion), I’m not so certain that the Post’s title is inaccurate or mocking. I mean, the case could be made that the newspaper simply quotes the prosecutor’s own words.
Prosecutorial discretion is one of the greatest tools in a prosecutor’s toolbox. But the chief prosecutor in Tennessee used that power to impose his moral and religious views onto the people his office was tasked with protecting, according to a video released by Nashville television station News Channel 5.
Craig Northcott, the district attorney general of Coffee County, was recorded telling participants at a 2018 Bible conference what happens when voters elect a “good Christian man as DA.”
“Y’all need to know who your DA is,” he reminded the crowd. “You give us a lot of authority. . . . We can choose to prosecute anything. We can choose not to prosecute anything.”
Using what he termed “prosecutorial discretion,” Northcott said, “the social engineers on the Supreme Court now decided we have homosexual marriage. I disagree with them.”
In his jurisdiction, which includes the area that hosts the summer music festival Bonnaroo, Northcott ensured that same-sex partners would not be afforded the protections of domestic violence laws.
The story goes on to explain the ramifications of not applying domestic assault charges in violence involving same-sex partners.
Also, the Post gives Northcott an opportunity to give his side of the story:
When reached by phone, Northcott said, “There’s no marriage to protect with homosexual relationships, so I don’t prosecute them as domestic,” and refused to comment further.
So, in this case, is a headline just a headline? Or is the headline, in fact, an editorial comment?
Can I get away with answering “yes” to both questions?
Here’s the deal: I believe the Post headline is accurate based on the facts reported. At the same time, if the newspaper is interested in being fair to all parties and not coming across as biased, then certainly there would be better options for a headline on this story.
Perhaps something like this:
Prosecutor cites his Christian faith in declining to file domestic violence charges for same-sex couples
I’m betting the reader who emailed wouldn’t have a problem with that headline.
But he also might welcome a little more context from the Post on the questions of conflict of interest and religious liberty and whether there’s a way to protect LGBTQ people and traditional religious believers.