January 08, 2007

Accusatory headline

It's been a very long time since we've written about the way newspapers report on people suspected of, alleged to have committed, accused of, or charged with criminal behavior of one kind or another.  The usual situation is that a paper, in an effort to avoid asserting guilt, ends up writing that "the unidentified suspect fled the scene" or "so-and-so was charged with allegedly embezzling $10,000" or the like.  But things can go wrong in the other direction as well.

Here's the Palo Alto Daily News of 6 January, with this headline on p. 4:

not guilty

Oh no, this really won't do.  Describing Marco Antonio Carlos as a "shooter" is definitely over the line; it asserts that he shot someone (a teenager from Newark, CA), but that's exactly the sort of claim of guilt that newspapers usually want to avoid. The paper could have referred to "shooting suspect" instead of "redwood shooter", but, I'd speculate, in the heat of getting the paper out, it missed the problem.  Headline writing is a hell of a job.

Now, a footnote about the multiple ambiguity of "Redwood shooter".  Almost any expression plucked from its context is multiply ambiguous, but headlines (given that they are so compressed) are especially likely to invite multiple interpretations.

So: a "Redwood shooter" could be a person who shoots (into) redwoods with some sort of weapon; a person who shoots redwood, or redwoods, out of some sort of weapon (a cannon, perhaps); a weapon for shooting redwoods, in either sense of "shoooting redwoods"; or a person who does shooting in redwood forests.  Or, in this case, given that the headline is in a Palo Alto paper, a shooter from Redwood City CA.  Context is important: this abbreviation might not work elsewhere, even in the Bay Area, and it certainly wouldn't work outside of it -- in Atlanta, say.

(Please don't send me other interpretations.  There probably are a zillion of them.  I'm still trying to cope with people complaining that I didn't get ALL of the possible interpretations of "We saw her duck" in my last posting on headlines, linked to above.)

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 8, 2007 10:43 AM