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'Killer pit bull'debate a part of newspapering

'Killer pit bull'debate a part of newspapering

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We published a story Wednesday about a pit bull that had mauled a 3-year-old girl to death in High Point. The story appeared on Page A10.

Atop Page A1 the same day, we published a six-column picture of the pit bull with a "teaser" to the story inside the newspaper. The headline with the photo: "Killer pit bull."

The Page A1 presentation was my idea. The story, the headline text, all of it.

A couple of News & Record staffers questioned that treatment when I suggested it during our regular news meeting late Tuesday afternoon where we typically determine what will appear on Page Al.

My colleagues said the treatment felt "sensational."

I persevered, and Wednesday's paper was the result.

We discussed the topic again Thursday morning at our regular 9:45 a.m. news meeting, where we start with a post-mortem of our performance a day earlier.

We had a bigger group for this discussion, including several editors who had not attended the Tuesday afternoon meeting.

The majority opinion about the Page Al presentation: wrong approach.

Editors said, again, that the presentation felt sensational. They also expressed sympathy for the dog, which some suggested wasn't to blame because dogs do only as humans condition them to do, and for pit bulls, which they said get a bum rap.

Some also said the presentation put too much focus on the dog rather than the dead girl.

Later Thursday, I wrote on my blog, Editor's Sounding Board, at about our two discussions. My blog post was a much shorter version of this column.

The column prompted more than 25 reader comments. As I write late Friday, all but one of those comments expressed support for the Page Al treatment.

But, really, the commenters appeared motivated less by support of my news play decision than by antipathy toward pit bulls. The blog post brought out the pit bull detractors, while pit bull fans stayed away. An example: "The job of the press is to inform the public of this kind of FACTS, not to hide the facts to please a tiny, largely sociopathic minority that wants their consumer fashion-item killer dog."

Strong stuff. And it made me wince because pit bulls — love 'em or hate 'em — didn't prompt our presentation at all.

No, my motivation in suggesting the big photo and "killer pit bull" headline out front was all about newspapering.

We make the best paper we can each day out of the content available. Our content often results from our planning about what to pursue. It's also about the day's spontaneous news, such as a dog killing a child.

So, come late afternoon, we sit down to discuss what we have and, importantly, how to package it all.

Packaging decisions may reflect the content's intrinsic news value. "Nation goes to war" trumps "Aunt Bea grows a car-size pumpkin."

They also reflect a subjective judgment about how many readers will feel a connection to content. And that connection can be about proximity, individual impact or emotion, among other factors.

A sinkhole in Florida is interesting to a few Guilford County readers.

A sinkhole in Oak Ridge is interesting to many Guilford readers, inconvenient for some and a tax burden for those who must pay to have it fixed.

A sinkhole that causes a car crash that kills a family of four, including two children, and their new puppy has emotional appeal whether the crash occurred in Florida or Oak Ridge.

Our story last week had both proximity and emotion: High Point and a dead girl. And as editors learn, stories about pets, especially dogs, add another layer of emotion.

The story screamed, "People are gonna connect to this story. They'll hate it, and they'll read it."

Also, we had excellent photos of the dog, captured by a News & Record photographer after the animal was put in confinement. My judgment, after weighing the other stories vying for Page Al, was that we could give the dog story the most visibility and build the best content mix out front by stripping a dog "teaser" across the top.

The headline, "Killer pit bull," was prompted by another couple of thoughts.

One is that newspapers often are too darned boring — sober and serious to the point of tedium.

They don't have to be.

Newspapers ought to be accurate and fair, yes. And, where appropriate, fun and evocative and provocative.

The other thought: Timidity in the pursuit of news stories is not a virtue. We expect reporters to be fast and assertive.

So why be timid in displaying news? When we have a doozy of a story, which we know will be read well but will prompt discomfort, why hide it inside the newspaper?

It will prompt a reaction, inside or out front. So embrace it, display it, leverage its potential to connect.

"Killer pit bull." "Killer chihuahua." "Killer bees." For the purpose of news display, if someone's dead there's little difference.

These judgments — and here's where some ofyoumay wince — are about selling newspapers. They're not so different from the judgments that grocery stores make about how to display breakfast cereal and beer.

I acknowledge our judgments often are subjective. Reasonable people will disagree. The discussion is always worthy.

Jeff Gauger is the editor and publisher of the News & Record andNews-Record, com. Contact him at (336) 373-7051 orjeff. Follow @Jeff_GaugerNR on Twitter.

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