I’m writing in response to a Muleskinner article titled, “Letter from the Editor,” published online Feb. 6, regarding the student newspaper’s choice of headline for a Sex Signals event. I heard about the letter, and your response, via an acquaintance on Twitter.
When I served as the editor for the weekly base newspaper at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., my boss gave me one important piece of advice: When you’re in a hole, stop digging.
In your letter from the editor, you outline your top two priorities: report the news and gain readership. To the first priority, a headline that reads, “Learn, laugh about sexual assault” is not a news headline. The story’s about a theater company that performs a presentation for colleges and military bases around the world to increase awareness surrounding sexual assault through humor. Your headline implies that the presentation is to get students to “laugh” about sexual assault, when in fact it’s not about getting anyone to laugh about sexual assault … because while sex can be silly, there’s absolutely nothing funny about sexual assault.
Here are some headlines that other publications have run with:
“UH using ‘Sex Signals’ to protect students” (KHON Channel 2, Hawaii)
“The wrong ‘Signals’” (Harvard)
“Lighthearted Sex Signals comes to UB” (University at Buffalo)
“‘Sex Signals’ educates in consent” (Arizona State University)
To your second point: I believe you’ll find that running headlines that turn your readers off will decrease your readership, not increase it. If you upset them further by defending the decision to run an ill-thought-out headline, they may also tell people they know not to read it and may even encourage advertisers not to run ads in it.
The reason that staff members in the women, gender and sexuality studies program called you out for this decision is because you are the managing editor. That means you are principally responsible for running the headline, and therefore you are responsible for mischaracterizing the nature of the Sex Signals presentation.
Now it’s easy for me to sit at my keyboard and say, “I wouldn’t have run that headline.” So let’s say I inherited the situation and it was up to me to respond to the letters and other criticism. With my boss’s advice in mind, here’s what that might look like:
“We received several complaints after running a story about a recent Sex Signals presentation with the headline, ‘Laugh, learn about sexual assault.’ Staff members pointed out in comments that sexual assault is no laughing matter.
“As the managing editor, I couldn’t agree more. I humbly apologize for the distasteful headline and pledge to our readers that we will exercise more care in writing our future headlines.”
— Donald S. Branum