Last week, a story broke about an alleged gang rape of a Kuna woman. Just about every local news outlet covered the story, and there was one particular detail that caused a stir. At least three of the four suspects are refugees from Tanzania. One man had been in the country for six months, and two others had arrived three years ago.
The Idaho Press included this information about halfway through our story. We did not put this information in the headline or the lead of the story. It was something we discussed at length in the newsroom as the story unfolded.
It’s worth explaining our thought process and how we decided to do what we do. Different news outlets handled the information differently, some choosing to play up the fact that the men are refugees in their headline and at the top of the story.
First, just a little bit of detail about writing headlines. We try to use descriptors in our headlines, information that will tell you a little bit about the story, information that will ground the reader and let readers know why they should be interested in reading more.
So, for example, you’ll see something like “Meridian man injured in crash.” That’s not to say that the fact that he’s from Meridian has something to do with the crash. It’s simply our way of letting you know that this is a local story. This is also why you’ve seen (an admittedly strange) headline from a Chicago newspaper, “Wife of a Bears’ lineman wins bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” The paper was trying to let its readers know that the Olympic medalist, Corey Cogdell, has a local connection. The paper caught holy heck for being sexist by not using her name in the headline. But since Corey Cogdell is not yet a household name, I can see how a headline writer would try to come up with another way to try to connect the story to local readers.
So the question became whether we play up the fact that the suspects are refugees. Some, particularly those who are opposed to allowing refugees into the United States, feel that this is a very important fact. “A-ha! See? Refugees come to this country and go around raping people.”
The Idaho Press has written countless stories of rape. I don’t think we’ve ever written a headline, though, that says, “Man, American citizen, arrested on rape charge.” In other words, we would not ascribe the rape to the fact that he is an American citizen. But putting “refugee” in the headline on our local story might give the impression that we were, in fact, ascribing the alleged rape to their status as refugees. Some news sites did indeed get criticism for doing just that. I think that’s a valid criticism.
It’s a difficult decision. Wouldn’t a reader be more likely to “click” on a story knowing in the headline that the suspects were refugees? In other words, isn’t that a detail that helps readers decide whether to continue reading the story?
At least one news source left out the information of their refugee status altogether, which I think swings too far in the other direction. As I’ve written before, we have a choice to either inform our readers or withhold information from our readers. We chose to inform our readers of their refugee status.
In the end, as with just about anything “the media” does these days, we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. But hopefully you know we put a lot of thought into these decisions and that we truly want to do the right thing.