Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Editors Decide

On the first day of school I outlined what students would be learning, how they would be graded, and explained that current events were an important part of the curriculum. We would be covering stories in three newspapers each day.

“Editors decide what the biggest story is and put it in the headline above the fold,” I said, holding up the Sun Journal headline about three bodies discovered in Newry, Maine. “Why do you suppose this is the headline?” I asked.

No responses. That was not unusual for the first day and there were only a few minutes left. “Reading on, I see that all three bodies were women and they were murdered. Newry is a small town just north of Bethel and very similar to your town. A triple murder is big news, don’t you think?”

Some students nodded, but the others just stared at me shyly. It was time to move on to their next class and I dismissed them saying, “We’ll see what’s in the headlines tomorrow.”

The story got a lot more attention the next day and I picked up five daily newspapers at Jockey Cap Store before school. I held up the Sun Journal again and there were bold, big-font headlines about a quadruple homicide above a large, color photograph of the man arrested. He was doing the perp walk from the Oxford County Jail to the Oxford County Courthouse. A deputy held him by the arm. I explained that he had confessed to the murders and that three victims were dismembered. After giving them a little time to react to that disturbing detail, I told them that I didn’t want to discuss the murders, but analyze different ways media covered them. “Why do you think the editor chose this picture?” I asked the class. “There would have been dozens of others to choose from.”

Again, no answers.

I held up the Portland Press Herald, which also displayed above-the-fold headlines and a large, color photo. “Why did the editors of this paper choose a different photo?” I asked.

They looked at it for a few seconds before a couple of hands went up. “Because he’s smiling,” said a boy.

“Why is he smiling?” a girl asked.

“Good question,” I said.

“Is he crazy?” asked another student.

“Of course he’s crazy,” said another. “He’d have to be to do what he did.”

“That’s creepy,” said the girl.

“Do you think that’s why the editors choose this picture?” I asked. “Did they want to creep out readers?”

“I guess so,” she said.

“Definitely,” said a boy.

“These two papers were side-by-side on the rack over at Jockey Cap Store,” I said. “Which one would people be more likely to buy?”

“The one that shows him smiling,” said the boy.


“Because it’s scary,” he said.

“Do people like to get scared?” I asked.

Several nodded. “Some do,” said a boy.

“Do editors think about that when they’re choosing what photos to run?”

“Probably,” said a girl.

I held up the Boston Globe. “This paper, which has ten times the circulation of the other two, ran the story on the front page but below the fold. Why did they decide it was less important than the two Maine papers?”

“Because Boston is far away?”

“Maybe,” I said. “But people down there are familiar with Newry and Bethel because they come up here on vacations. Most of the skiers at Sunday River are from Massachusetts, aren’t they? The Globe’s editors know this, so they put the story on the front page but below the fold.”

Next, I held up The Boston Herald. The entire front page was taken up with a different photo of the confessed killer. “Why did the Herald’s editors choose this picture?” I asked.

“Because the killer is looking right at the camera in that one,” said a boy.

“So when you look at the guy, he seems to be looking right back at you,” I added. Students stared the photo more closely. “Do you think I’m reading too much into this?” I asked. “Or do you think editors really consider this stuff when they’re deciding what to put on the front page?” I held up three papers for them to see side-by-side. Nobody responded.

“Since you’re not answering, I’ll just tell you that editors think a lot about what stories and photos go on the front page, and which ones don’t. People in media are making decisions all the time about how you see what you see. They also decide what you don’t see. Remember that.”

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