Why sensationalize, can’t we just report the facts?

I read an article in today’s Orlando Sentinel that bothers me.  Not the article so much as it is the reporting style of the article.  And, not so much the reporter’s style of writing as much as the news industry’s mentality.  Lure people in, no matter the facts.

When I worked in news, there were times I would read a headline, or watch a tease of our story, and that headline or tease had NOTHING to do with the story I worked on.  However, it was used to capture the audience’s attention, and it ALWAYS bothered me.  Why can’t we let the facts speak for themselves?  If the facts can’t lure people in, maybe we should do a different story.  But, filling time in news was very common place.  Often, they would say to me, “I don’t care where you go for a live shot, but I need your story to be live, because I don’t have any other live shots.”

Today’s Orlando Sentinel headline reads, “Man in ‘Joker’ makeup arrested at Brevard County movie theater.”  My first thought was, a copycat of James Holmes, the Colorado Movie Theater Killer.  However, reading more of the story, this man did not have anywhere close to those same intentions.

The first paragraph gives the facts, “A 21-year-old man was arrested today in Melbourne after a concerned movie-goer spotted him outside a theater on the 1800 block of Hibiscus Boulevard with makeup similar to that of the well-known villain The Joker.”

This information helps set up the scene of what, when, who and where.

The second paragraph describes the man, “The man, identified as Christopher Sides, was pacing outside the movie theater smoking a cigarette with black, white and red makeup and red-dyed hair said Melbourne Police Department Spokesman Sheridan Shelley.”

However, the article still hasn’t fully described the headline which was that he was arrested for wearing Joker makeup.  Why was he arrested for wearing Joker makeup?  Would this have been a story if not for the Colorado movie killings?

The third paragraph…”He made no threats, he had no weapons, he created no disturbance,” Shelley said.  Wait?  What?  Why is this a story?

The end of the fourth paragraph…FOURTH PARAGRAPH tells you everything you need to know about the story…”his makeup had nothing to do with his arrest”.  Seriously?  Again, I ask why is this a story?

Finally, the fifth paragraph of a six paragraph online story said, “He was brought in on an outstanding warrant related to a missed court date for a misdemeanor offense.”

The article’s headline was misleading.  We could debate until we’re blue in the face about whether this is journalism, but the headline was written in a way to tie this incident (and you can’t even call it that) with the Colorado mass shootings, and that’s just wrong.  This wasn’t the same, wasn’t even close, he wasn’t even going to see The Dark Knight Rises…for factual purposes he was going to see The Expendables 2.

In Chapter 3 of our readings this week Wilkinson wrote, “Online usability expert and engineer Jakob Nielsen says the inverted pyramid is even more important online because users often will not scroll past the first screen.”  The inverted pyramid describes how each paragraph in an online article should be single ideas with the details of that idea in the first line of each section.  The main idea of this article was buried…deep.

The Sentinel knows that people won’t necessarily read the whole article to find out that the man wasn’t arrested for wearing Joker makeup, though the makeup did cause attention to his missed court date.  He wasn’t arrested for killing people or even wanting to kill people.   The facts are he was arrested for missing a court date, he just happened to be wearing Joker makeup.  Those are the facts.  If the man was wearing a Halloween mask of a ghost, would it be a story?  What about if he was wearing a football helmet?  Baseball cap?  Fishing hat?

The fact of the matter is the man made no disturbance.  The fact of the matter is the man missed a court date.  Did he want to draw attention to himself?  Maybe.  But, drawing attention to yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you should be arrested.  I’m not questioning the police for looking into it.  People who saw him outside the theater were fearful.  I’m questioning why this is a story.  It really shouldn’t be.

And, what bothers me more is, I believe the Sentinel dragged the facts towards the bottom.  If they said in the lead paragraph, that the man caused no disturbance and he wasn’t arrested for wearing makeup, people would stop reading.  But, they misleadingly dragged it on.  That’s a shame.

I think journalism took a hit today.  And, they didn’t have to.  But, they chose to do it this way.  I think that’s a shame.  They should do better.  I’m not going to hold my breath for them to do the factual thing for the future.


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