Media Monday Edmonton: Headlines matter

I was up relatively early Friday morning for meetings, so I was working from my home office. I had a few minutes in between calls at around 8am, so I clicked over to Google News. I was shocked to see the top news section filled with stories about a shooting at the University of Alberta. I poked my head out the door and said to Sharon, who was in the kitchen eating breakfast, "There’s been a shooting at the U of A!"

I later realized that while the shooting took place on the University of Alberta campus, it was not a school shooting as I had assumed after reading the headlines.

Five employees of G4S Cash Solutions Canada were making a delivery to ATMs at Hub Mall just after midnight when one of them, 21-year-old Travis Brandon Baumgartner, allegedly opened fire on his colleagues as part of a robbery. Michelle Shegelski, 26, Brian Ilesic, 35, and Eddie Rejano, 39 all died on scene, and Matthew Schuman is in critical condition in U of A hospital. Baumgartner was caught attempting to cross the border just south of Abbotsford, BC on Saturday with more than $300,000 in cash. He remains in RCMP custody and has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder, and four counts of robbery with a firearm.

There’s a page at Wikipedia for school shootings. A school shooting is defined there as "an incident in which gun violence occurs at an educational institution" though the page further explains that the term "is most commonly used to describe acts committed by either a student or intruders from outside the school campus." When I hear the term "school shooting" I most often think about Columbine, Virginia Tech, or Ecole Polytechnique (and those three are just the tip of the iceberg). Those incidents were all very different than the shooting that took place on Friday at the University of Alberta. They all involved students, for one thing. They involved the school in more than just location. So why did the headlines from Friday all make it seem like this was another school shooting?

Thanks in large part to search engines and the proliferation of bite-sized information distribution systems like Twitter, the nature of the headline is changing. Crafting brief, punchy headlines with a touch a humor and word play is rapidly being replaced by crafting headlines that rank highest in searches and work well on social media. It is not uncommon for the same article to have different headlines online and in print, because what plays well in the paper may not result in the best SEO for the online version.

Headlines are important because they punch above their weight. As this academic paper notes, "headlines reach an audience considerably wider than those who read the articles, since all those who buy the paper will glance, if only fleetingly, at the headlines." More importantly than the reach they have is the fact that a headline is more than just a collection of words. "Headlines encapsulate not only the content but the orientation, the perspective that the readers should bring to their understanding of the article."

As is often the case with crime stories, people craved information about the incident and the media gave us what we asked for, producing countless articles, videos, and other story elements. Let’s take a look at some of the headlines used by the media this weekend to describe the shooting.

headlines

Notice how prominently the University of Alberta factors into those headlines. “U of A shooting” and “Hub Mall shooter” were both commonly used. The Edmonton Sun called their section “U of A slayings”. There’s no easily discoverable section at the Journal, but in the “More on this story” box for this article on the Edmonton Journal, every single one of the twelve articles listed includes “U of A shooting”. What perspective does that suggest you bring to your reading of the news? Remember that the incident simply took place on campus property, but was not what we would typically describe as a "school shooting". As Paula Simons noted in her column: "This has all the hallmarks of a calculated, cold-blooded heist, an inside job — about as far from a random campus spree killing as you could get."

The emotional connections our community has to the University of Alberta should not be overlooked. Some of us are alumni, others have children who are studying there. The U of A’s significance as our province’s and our city’s university creates a less direct but still important connection. When the U of A is recognized by others, we feel pride. When a horrific event takes place on campus, we feel sadness and maybe anger. Our emotional connection to the University has an impact on how we perceive news about it.

I don’t mean to suggest that the University of Alberta should have been removed from the story. The incident took place on campus, and questions about whether or not students were appropriately notified are important and should be explored. But I am troubled by the confluence of the U of A and the shooting because I think it makes news consumers think of school shootings, when that is not the correct perspective to bring to the story. The facts do not support the "school shooting" perspective.

I guess I’d be one of the alumni that Paula wrote about:

Some U of A staff and alumni are trying to distance the university from the shooting – arguing this was just a kind of bank robbery that accidentally happened to take on university property. Yet even if this tragedy is only tangentially connected to the University of Alberta, we’d be wilfully naive to assume people in the wider world won’t connect the shootings and the university.

Maybe that’s true, but the headlines that media organizations chose to use certainly didn’t help. You need not look any further than Paula’s column itself: "Simons on U of A shooting: The danger of turning killings into online entertainment". That’s the online headline, the one that people in the wider world would see.

What should the headlines have read instead? Perhaps less focus on the location, and more on the actual event – an armed robbery that turned deadly. Some of the headlines that appeared later did this, such as "Manhunt on for triple-murder suspect in shootings of Edmonton armoured-truck colleagues". While last year was a very unusual year, most homicide stories carried a headline about the count, as in "Edmonton’s 30th homicide". If a location was included, it was often in general terms such as "West Edmonton" or "Downtown". But I don’t think there’s a simple answer. Maybe this story is sufficiently unique that comparing it to other homicide stories is inappropriate. Certainly the level of violence combined with the robbery make it an unusual incident for Edmonton.

Covering a story like this is hard work and I have a lot of respect for the journalists that worked through the night to keep us informed. Events unfold rapidly, information is incomplete, and journalists and editors need to make decisions quickly about what is right and what is wrong and what should be shared. It’s much easier to look back and critique what happened, but I think that’s an important part of the process too. Reflection will ultimately help us improve for the future.

The University of Alberta will be feeling the impact of Friday’s terrible shooting for quite some time, and not just because of the headlines that the media used to tell the story. Still, I can’t help but think that the close association of the U of A with the incident in many of those headlines did more harm than good.

  • I think the fact it was at the university however made it more ‘news worthy’ somehow. It was on the front page of BBC News for a while, which most bank robberies certainly aren’t, even when three people die. 

    It wasn’t even news headlines either, I think every water cooler discussion about it would have included the term “that shooting at the university” and would never have been “that shooting in south central Edmonton”. Same with the Toronto mall shooting recently; it was always a shooting in a downtown mall

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