Saturday, June 27, 2009

Is it still libelous if ...?

Oh, are they still taking entries in the How Much Can You Do Wrong In A Single Hed contest?

This one's in a category by itself, mostly because the writer wants the comma to do one thing even as the comma insists on doing something quite different. It ends up being so wrong on two counts at once that, should it ever go to court, it might be able to cancel itself out.

What's the comma up to? In this sort of hed compound, it's like a coordinating conjunction:* It joins two elements of more or less equal weight. That could be two nouns, as on yesterday's Freep front:
Van Buren Twp. lands GE wind tech, new jobs

Or two gerunds, in one that Strayhorn actually got past someone and into the paper:
Wailing, gnashing of teeth greet Supreme Court ruling

Or two verbs, as in this case from the host paper mentioned above:
Sisters kidnapped, threatened at gunpoint

See the problem? You can coordinate two passive verbs ("kidnapped" and "threatened"), or you can coordinate two active verbs ("shoots" and "leaves"), but you can't put a passive verb together with an active verb. So the obvious reading of the hed is that the subject was arrested and then was offered a boy.

That's convenient, because the other major rule being broken here is about libel: Never -- that's never, as in "which part of 'never' went in one shell-pink ear and out the other?" -- declare people guilty of crimes they haven't been convicted of.

A libel is a false and defamatory statement. If somebody's been charged with child-molesting, it might ruin his reputation to report that he's been charged with child-molesting, but it isn't false. Cop reports (and trials, legislative proceedings, &c) are also covered by "privilege." It might be both false and defamatory to call someone a commie spy, but it's not libelous if it's said during the trial or the Senate debate -- or in the police report, which is why you see heds like "Police: Smith shot Jones."

When we jump up and down and tell you never to write "Smith shoots Jones" because it's libelous, then, we're not suggesting that we need to write plaintiff a check on the spot. What we mean is that you're making what might be a false and defamatory assertion about a specific person without privilege; if Smith is cleared for whatever reason and has the motive, time and money to come after us, we're in for some trouble that a little basic professional competence would have headed off.**

So is the hed libelous? Well, not if we have the sort of lawyer who can do one of those passive-transformation diagrams for the jury and demonstrate beyond a shadow of two mockeries of a sham that what we said was not "N offered boy for sex" but "N was offered boy for sex." Ya think?

On the other hand, we could try getting both the grammar and the libel/fairness bit right at the same time. Funny, there used to be people who were paid to do that. "Copy editors," I think they were called. Perhaps we should start hiring them again.

* Hed dialect can be tricky, but this is one trick that, I expect, almost everyone gets.
** And while we're at it, most if not all cop heds should be in the passive: "Smith accused of shooting Jones."


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