Elaine in Derby e-mailed me this week, unhappy about the tone of our story Tuesday about the death of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin.
Elaine thought our first sentence â€“ â€œThe Crocodile Hunter finally got too closeâ€ â€“ was a crass and disrespectful way to start a story about Irwin and his life and legacy. Later that day, a friend commented to me over lunch that she thought our story was negative in a couple places.
I agree with both of them.
I spoke with one of the editors who worked on the story, and she was surprised that the tone of the first sentence was interpreted negatively. She pointed out that the rest of the paragraph made clear that TV viewers loved Irwin for his adventures and contributions to wildlife management and education.
Later in the story we talked to local residents about their impressions of Irwin, and paraphrased one (not a direct quote) as saying Irwin was â€œa hero, a pioneer and an idiot.â€
When I saw the story Tuesday morning, I winced at both of those passages.
The truth is, catching a â€œsnarky toneâ€ in written language is one of the hardest things an editor has to do. The editor in this case certainly did not mean to disrespect Irwin. This is a key reason we have several editors who handle each story before itâ€™s published â€“ what sounds fine to one person hits another person as demeaning or condescending or disrespectful.
The key for a story editor is to try to anticipate how a reader at the breakfast table will perceive our words. One single â€œloadedâ€ word â€“ one that will cause an average person to react negatively â€“ can determine a readerâ€™s interpretation of an entire news story. Editors must develop an ear for words that will be off-putting to a reader. Many words should always send up a red flag to editors because they are negative in connotation 99% of the time. For "idiot," it’s 100%.
Elaine pointed out that we would never write about a local personâ€™s death and refer to him that way. Sheâ€™s right. Managing Editor Theresa Johnson and I agreed that our standards of respect for a person who has died must be the same regardless of whether that person lives in our community.
In this case, a reader perceived that we were gloating about a celebrityâ€™s death. Of course we werenâ€™t. But the language we chose was inappropriate, and whether we meant it or not, we sounded snide.
Elaine, thanks for dropping me a note.