Friday, November 26, 2004

First, kill the subbies

One of my pet peeves, that my friends have undoubtedly got sick of hearing me go on about, is the incompetence of that parasite on journalism - the subeditor. That's the person who writes the headlines on other people's stories; my problem is that occasionally the headline shows that the subbie has not actually bothered to read the story first.

This phenomenon first came to my attention about 25 years ago, on the occasion of an Arab terrorist attack on a kibbutz nursery in northern Israel. Two Arabs infiltrated the nursery and killed 5 babies; the army ended up storming the building and killing both terrorists. The Melbourne Age headline? Seven Dead in Israeli Raid. Since then I've kept my eyes open for this sort of thing, and it happens with distressing frequency.

Take this story from today's Age: Folbigg needs four trials: court, shouts the headline. Intrigued, I read the story, which is about a woman's appeal of her conviction and sentence for four murders. Turns out, though, that it was not the court that said she should have four trials, it was her lawyer. The basis of her appeal is that it was unfair to try her once for all four incidents, and she should have been able to defend each charge separately; if that had been done, her lawyer claims, she might have been acquitted on some, or perhaps even all of them.

This doesn't sound like a totally outrageous argument (though the Crown Prosecutor made some reasonable-sounding objections to it). Perhaps the court will ultimately agree with it.[1] But it hasn't done so yet. As the story concludes, ‘the court has reserved its judgment’. To put in the court's mouth an argument made to it by one of the parties shows a complete lack of comprehension, a symptom either of illiteracy or of a casual attitude to journalism.

Here's a radical idea: why not allow journos to write the headlines for their own stories?

1. I certainly think that allowing the prosecution to introduce expert evidence that amounts to ‘I've never heard of such a thing happening, therefore it couldn't have happened in this case’ is dangerous; that way lies the Chamberlain trial, and the irresponsible way the forensic evidence was presented in it. (Yes, I'm one of those who always thought Lindy was innocent.)


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