If stories didn’t need to be summed up for the reader before the reader read them, we wouldn’t need headlines.
While the practice of headlining a story began sometime between the mid-17th and early-18th centuries with the advent of the modern newspaper in Europe, it wasn’t until over a century later that newspapers began to really make the headline tell the story for them.
“In the late-19th century, as competition in newspapers increased, you start seeing these big, inflammatory, screaming headlines. No longer are headlines just giving you the simple facts, they are now trying to incite huge emotions in you,” Teresa Schmedding, president of American Copy Editors Society, told Al Jazeera in 2017.
Now, most headlines aren’t going to be as “big,” “inflammatory” or “screaming” as the New York Post’s attention-grabbers. As for The Western Journal’s headlines — well, at least on the side of the desk I work on, we’re involved in conservative commentary. You know where we’re coming from. From the moment you read the headline to the end of the story, you’re aware that you’re reading my opinion, hopefully amply backed up by evidence.
We’re not, say, the local journalism of The Jackson (Tennessee) Sun. Nor are we the New York Daily News. Nor are we Newsweek. Nor are we The Hill. And that’s the problem when it comes to the tragic death of 6-year-old Gigi Morse.
Morse, we’re informed by The Jackson Sun, was the first childhood death from the coronavirus in Madison County, Tennessee. She was also not unknown outside of the area; her family adopted Gigi from an orphanage in Ukraine at the age of 3 and blogged about the experience.
The Jackson Sun’s headline: “Parents: 6-year-old Jackson girl dies after testing positive for COVID-19.”
The first four graphs give you the important facts: The Morses are mourning. The health department director confirmed the death Wednesday. Gigi had been sick and had been to the doctor on Tuesday.
A quote from her mother: “The doctor said she had a viral bug and to let her rest and eat as many popsicles and slushies as she wanted,” Priscilla Morse in a post on her blog. “She went to sleep and she died and I don’t even want to breathe anymore without her.”
The seventh graph begins to get closer to what the problem with the headline is: “She had such a rough start to her short life, living unloved, unwanted in an orphanage in Ukraine,” her father, David Morse, wrote in a Facebook, according to the Sun. “Severe medical issues. We found her and knew immediately that she had to be our daughter. We brought her home and showed her a love like no other.”
The New York Daily News mentions the “severe medical issues” quote in the third graph, but the headline is similar: “Tennessee 6-year-old dies after contracting coronavirus.”
The newspapers also noted — in the final paragraph — that only 86 of the country’s COVID-19 victims were children as of July 30; most states define a child as between 0-19 years old. To give the newspaper some benefit of the doubt, the short account leans heavily on the Jackson Sun’s report.
A 6-year-old Tennessee girl named Gigi Morse died after contracting COVID-19, becoming a rare child casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.https://t.co/sAMxsPxEta
— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) August 7, 2020
It’s not until we get to Newsweek (“6-Year-Old Girl Who Found Fame After Being Adopted Dies of COVID-19”) that we get information that’s a) readily available with a Google search and b) vital to the reader putting Gigi’s tragic death into a wider context: The girl had “autism, epilepsy and hydrocephalus.”
The Hill also noted these conditions, a little further down in the story. Its headline: “6-year-old child whose parents blogged adoption dies of COVID-19.”
Hydrocephalus, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website, is “the buildup of fluid in the cavities (ventricles) deep within the brain. The excess fluid increases the size of the ventricles and puts pressure on the brain.”
The Epilepsy Foundation says epilepsy could put individuals at a higher risk of COVID-19 or complications.
The Hydrocephalus Association says that the condition “by itself is not a risk factor for contracting COVID-19 or developing severe COVID‑19 disease.” However, it does note that “those of any age who have coexisting health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, immune suppression, or lung disease, should consider themselves in the higher-risk population, as described by the CDC.”
It’s unknown what role, if any, her medical conditions played in the tragic death of Gigi Morse. It feels ghoulish to speculate on it.
But then again, there was a ghoulishness on reporting so widely on the death in the first place. Gigi Morse was hardly a household name. Yet her death after testing positive for COVID-19 was widely reported. It even made international news.
Lest we dismiss this as just a human interest story, consider the fact that The Hill — a political outlet — also saw fit to cover it.
Gigi’s death was a tragedy, and especially poignant given that the Morse family has adopted several special-needs children. When reporting on it, however, two things should have been been foregrounded: Her death was an outlier and the girl had serious medical conditions that were potentially comorbidities.
Anyone who works in media knows a fact you probably could have guessed: Headlines do heavy lifting. They tell you a story before you read the story. If there’s something critical that’s been omitted — or, conversely, a seemingly trivial fact that’s been underlined — that’s usually not accidental.
The four of them here (and undoubtedly many, many more published elsewhere) all neglected to mention Gigi had serious medical issues in the headline. Most of them barely touched on it in the story. Out of this sample of four stories, only half mentioned what those conditions were. One of those four stories mentioned the extreme rarity of children dying from COVID-19, and then at the very end.
Sad as it is, Gigi Morse’s isn’t being reported on because the heroism of the Morse family in opening their home to so many children with special needs, or because their blogs were so widely read. This is being reported because it’s a 6-year-old dying from the coronavirus — and the fears it could stoke.
Think your children can go back to school? Think they can go back to playing with their friends? Think again. That’s the message.
This isn’t about the Morses or about the tribulations their daughter endured before her passing. Not a single headline mentioned her other medical conditions. That’s not only because that wasn’t the point; it’s because that was antithetical to the point.
As evidence the mainstream media coverage wasn’t about Gigi’s death but how her death could be used, for instance, let me point out one of the glaring, unmentioned issues here: When did the test occur that showed the was infected by the coronavirus?
If COVID-19 was suspected, would Gigi’s mother have described it at the news conference as “a viral bug”? Would the doctor’s advice have been to “let her rest and eat as many popsicles and slushies as she wanted”? Or would a list of measures have been issued to keep the girl from potentially infecting other members of the family?
Was the test done post-mortem? That seems to contradict the Jackson Sun’s headline, which states that “Jackson girl dies after testing positive for COVID-19.”
If the purpose of journalistic coverage is to answer the public’s questions, details like this are more than slightly important, even when dealing with a grieving family. Yet no journalistic outfit named, no matter what their resources, seemed to be able to provide the answers, or appears even interested in even asking the questions.
There’s a reason for that. The Gigi Morse story, as written is serving its purpose: To scare other parents about the danger their children face.
A headline can help readers understand the facts or lead them toward a point of view. When it comes to these four headlines — which weren’t an unrepresentative sample — it’s difficult not to place them in the latter category.
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