From the Editor: ‘Shooting’ headlines, even about basketball, upset some readers

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Farm Forum

“Area youth involved in Sunday shootout.”

What do you think that story is about?

The headline on the front page of the Jan. 28 American News was drawing attention to a free-throw contest sponsored by the Aberdeen Knights of Columbus.

A reader who called last week didn’t care for the wording.

She said she doesn’t want to read any stories about “area youth in a shootout,” which, given the school massacre in Connecticut in December, is a phrase that can cause concern.

That’s not how I read that headline.

When I saw it that Monday morning, I didn’t get any hint of guns. Of course, there was more context on the page, including a photo a couple of kids lining up free throws on the basketball court. The story also ran “below the fold.” Had the story been about a tragedy, it would have been at the top of the page, as the Sandy Hook story was on the Dec. 15 front page.

And most readers would know that free-throw or three-point contests are often referred to as “shootouts.”

But isolated without context, as that headline might be displayed online, it isn’t as clear.

In the newsroom, we got into a discussion about how many cliches involve “shooting” that don’t necessarily reference guns, or at least not anymore: Shoot hoops. Shoot the breeze, or shoot the bull. Shoot a photo or shoot a video (and use a point-and-shoot camera). Shoot for the moon.

Are you a big shot or a long shot? Maybe you’re a hot shot. Better than a cheap shot. Whatever, just give it your best shot.

Aw, shoot.

In the newspaper, we publish little ads we call fillers. They are little graphics that our desk editors can drop onto pages to fill in awkward spaces if stories don’t fill the page. Our in-house fillers promote the Taste page, our website and other products and features.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook killings, I asked our copy desk to delete one ad in particular, a promo for the Friday Outdoors page. The filler ad directed readers to see “A shell of a story” and showed shotgun shells to make its point.

Now, it’s not an offensive ad (besides the worn-out pun), and the vast majority of readers will understand that the subject is hunting. But I’d hate to take the risk of publishing a story about a school shooting and have a filler ad placed on the page be seen as crass or insensitive. Besides, we have other fillers that can promote the Outdoors page.

Will we be able to eliminate words that might cause discomfort for some readers? No, and I don’t think we would want to. Some of these uses are just part of natural speech (I wonder if Canadian papers have as many gun metaphors to deal with) and shouldn’t be banished.

Follow @jjperry_AAN on Twitter or email jperry@aberdeennews.com.