Conflict Escalates, Tensions Ease

A headline is everything, it draws readers, it lures them into the story, into purchasing the paper or magazine, or tuning in at eleven. That pleases advertisers. It makes money. But what about the truth, you ask? That is less important. Truth is often too dull and predictable or is too convoluted and detailed, better to simplify it or sensationalize it. Truth takes work, perseverance and integrity, attributes not particularly common in America's newsrooms. Add in intellectual laziness, some postmodern nuance, a large dose of arrogance, and you will have inevitable contractions. Last Saturday gave us a good one. An ABC headline from the Associated Press on April 6, 2008 read:

Conflict Escalates at Polygamist Retreat; Sect Leaders Confront Authorities Searching for Teenager at West Texas Polygamist Compound. 

At a glance it sounds serious indeed, another Waco, jackbooted ATF agents swarming a compound to stop a deranged wild haired prophet, confrontations with followers full of violence and fanaticism. It is conveniently in Texas so half the story writes itself, an astute journalist could recycle reams of old copy. No deep thought required on this one.

Yet on the same day, the Houston Chronicle had a headline that said this:

Tensions ease as officials finally search polygamist temple

Well what is it? Escalation or easing, and how would a news consumer know which to believe, the headlines are diametrically opposed? The ABC/AP article uses some dark descriptors in it to reinforce their ominous headline but overall the details are substantially the same. However, ABC/AP missed an important part of the story that gives it more information value as well as perspective. The Houston Chronicle, to its everlasting credit, has a higher journalism standard. 

"With law enforcement officers keeping the 1,700-acre fenced retreat blocked off, residents of the tight-knit West Texas community focused their efforts on feeding and comforting the displaced children.

"
Many in the windswept town of 2,000 bypassed the local spring festival with its tricycle races and goat-kissing booth to load bags of teddy bears, juice, snacks and diapers into the First Baptist Church building that's serving as a temporary shelter. Two blocks away, members of the Church of Christ were preparing a dinner of fresh chicken, broccoli, bread and salad for the now homeless families.

"They couldn't have picked a better community for this to have happened," said Gary Shipman, a 46-year-old oil field worker, who helped unload $1,300 in supplies that his church had purchased."

Maybe it is that sense of fair play they say abounds down in Texas that encouraged a more thorough article that was able to present some positive balance along with the events obvious drama. The ABC/AP article also inserted the canards of turnstile journalism into their story, the ones that always flag lazy research. None of which were found in the Chronicle.

"Authorities provided no details early Sunday about the standoff."

"Those inside the retreat did not respond to requests for comment."

"Other authorities, citing a gag order, continued to decline to comment."

We expect sensationalism in the press just as we expect advertisers to exaggerate the taste, strength and softness of whatever they are selling. We build internal filters that weed out the majority of those inflated claims, but the news is more problematic. Most of us do not realize how easily a sensational headline influences us, or how susceptible we are to false information, especially when endlessly repeated. In our busy lives, we do not always have the time to drill down to the truth, so we ignore it.

The ABC/AP version of events is not exactly a lie, it is from a certain perspective and focused through a biased prism but it is not false. It paints its kernel of truth with words that reinforce certain stereotypes and prejudices about Texas, religious communities and small towns. It presents a partial truth in a wooden and predictably muddled article, from a venue that is losing readership with every silly misrepresented story like this one. Exposed by the alternative press the legacy press reacts in one of two ways, either they attempt more honest reportage or more often they ignore the ethical dilemma exposed. In the time it took to write this article, ABC changed its headline to:

Cops Peacefully Enter Polygamist Temple; Law Enforcement Peacefully Enter Temple on the Grounds of a Polygamist Compound in West Texas


Luckily, I kept a copy of the original. It would be nice to think this merely a correction of a too eager young writer, which it could have been. Historical evidence indicates otherwise however, and the original headline is consistent with ABC and AP's track record. Many of thousands saw the sensational headline and retain its message, despite the later change. Not much damage done, this time, but in politics and war, distorted messages have a significant impact and terrible consequences. We should always view the press with suspicion and a healthy cynicism, and when we can, take the time to find the whole truth.
A headline is everything, it draws readers, it lures them into the story, into purchasing the paper or magazine, or tuning in at eleven. That pleases advertisers. It makes money. But what about the truth, you ask? That is less important. Truth is often too dull and predictable or is too convoluted and detailed, better to simplify it or sensationalize it. Truth takes work, perseverance and integrity, attributes not particularly common in America's newsrooms. Add in intellectual laziness, some postmodern nuance, a large dose of arrogance, and you will have inevitable contractions. Last Saturday gave us a good one. An ABC headline from the Associated Press on April 6, 2008 read:

Conflict Escalates at Polygamist Retreat; Sect Leaders Confront Authorities Searching for Teenager at West Texas Polygamist Compound. 

At a glance it sounds serious indeed, another Waco, jackbooted ATF agents swarming a compound to stop a deranged wild haired prophet, confrontations with followers full of violence and fanaticism. It is conveniently in Texas so half the story writes itself, an astute journalist could recycle reams of old copy. No deep thought required on this one.

Yet on the same day, the Houston Chronicle had a headline that said this:

Tensions ease as officials finally search polygamist temple

Well what is it? Escalation or easing, and how would a news consumer know which to believe, the headlines are diametrically opposed? The ABC/AP article uses some dark descriptors in it to reinforce their ominous headline but overall the details are substantially the same. However, ABC/AP missed an important part of the story that gives it more information value as well as perspective. The Houston Chronicle, to its everlasting credit, has a higher journalism standard. 

"With law enforcement officers keeping the 1,700-acre fenced retreat blocked off, residents of the tight-knit West Texas community focused their efforts on feeding and comforting the displaced children.

"
Many in the windswept town of 2,000 bypassed the local spring festival with its tricycle races and goat-kissing booth to load bags of teddy bears, juice, snacks and diapers into the First Baptist Church building that's serving as a temporary shelter. Two blocks away, members of the Church of Christ were preparing a dinner of fresh chicken, broccoli, bread and salad for the now homeless families.

"They couldn't have picked a better community for this to have happened," said Gary Shipman, a 46-year-old oil field worker, who helped unload $1,300 in supplies that his church had purchased."

Maybe it is that sense of fair play they say abounds down in Texas that encouraged a more thorough article that was able to present some positive balance along with the events obvious drama. The ABC/AP article also inserted the canards of turnstile journalism into their story, the ones that always flag lazy research. None of which were found in the Chronicle.

"Authorities provided no details early Sunday about the standoff."

"Those inside the retreat did not respond to requests for comment."

"Other authorities, citing a gag order, continued to decline to comment."

We expect sensationalism in the press just as we expect advertisers to exaggerate the taste, strength and softness of whatever they are selling. We build internal filters that weed out the majority of those inflated claims, but the news is more problematic. Most of us do not realize how easily a sensational headline influences us, or how susceptible we are to false information, especially when endlessly repeated. In our busy lives, we do not always have the time to drill down to the truth, so we ignore it.

The ABC/AP version of events is not exactly a lie, it is from a certain perspective and focused through a biased prism but it is not false. It paints its kernel of truth with words that reinforce certain stereotypes and prejudices about Texas, religious communities and small towns. It presents a partial truth in a wooden and predictably muddled article, from a venue that is losing readership with every silly misrepresented story like this one. Exposed by the alternative press the legacy press reacts in one of two ways, either they attempt more honest reportage or more often they ignore the ethical dilemma exposed. In the time it took to write this article, ABC changed its headline to:

Cops Peacefully Enter Polygamist Temple; Law Enforcement Peacefully Enter Temple on the Grounds of a Polygamist Compound in West Texas


Luckily, I kept a copy of the original. It would be nice to think this merely a correction of a too eager young writer, which it could have been. Historical evidence indicates otherwise however, and the original headline is consistent with ABC and AP's track record. Many of thousands saw the sensational headline and retain its message, despite the later change. Not much damage done, this time, but in politics and war, distorted messages have a significant impact and terrible consequences. We should always view the press with suspicion and a healthy cynicism, and when we can, take the time to find the whole truth.