It’s not always easy to come up with a headline for a newspaper story that will grab people’s attention and make them read the story. You know you’ve failed if the headline is interesting.
If it’s racially offensive, however, that means you’ve really screwed up.
The Antigo Daily Journal, a newspaper in northern Wisconsin, had a report last week on how the home team won its hockey game. Their headline of choice: “Red Robins scalp Indians in solid GNC 6-0 shutout.”
As a journalist who has spent many years crafting thousands of headlines, let me just say that headline was a boneheaded blunder. If you have not learned that talk of scalping Indians is akin to rounding up Jews and putting them in concentration camps, then you might want to contact every school you ever attended and ask officials why they failed you.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Here’s what Gus Frank, the chairman for the Forest County Potawatomi Tribe had to say to television station WJFW:
“The recent headline in the Antigo Daily Journal was disgusting and deeply offensive. The use of racial slurs, in any form or in any medium, should not be tolerated. Beyond the fact that this disturbing headline was printed, it’s alarming that someone employed by a newspaper came up with this headline in the first place. Terms like these are more than hurtful. They are a reminder of the discrimination that still exists today.”
Native American tribes have been a part of my coverage as a journalist for close to 15 years. When I was a reporter and editor for the Lake Powell Chronicle, I lived in a community bordering the vast Navajo Nation. At my current newspaper, The Shawano Leader, I deal with the Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee tribes, with some occasional interaction with the Ho-Chunk. I think that I would be fired if I ever came up with a headline like that while working at either newspaper.
I know from interacting with Native Americans that many still have a seething resentment toward the “white man” because of the history of tribes being displaced from their homelands and set up on reservations, where many were expected to forsake their heritage and spiritual beliefs to embrace “American” values. Much of the culture of these tribes has been stripped away, and many native families are living under these new values, but many still cling to their traditional heritage, and the kind of ignorance that the Journal is displayed is like stabbing these folks through the art. It’s unacceptable. It’s reprehensible.
In the world we live in today, we’re dealing with the fallout from a recent focus on Muslims. Muslims have become the new blacks, the new Jews, the new Indians. The problem is that the old blacks, Jews and Indians haven’t escaped discrimination. It still exists, and every time something like the scalping headline comes to light, it’s a sad reminder that we still have a long way to go.
Fortunately, the Journal had the good sense to apologize for the headline. Fred Berner, the paper’s editor, had this to say Friday:
“A collection of words can be exceptionally hurtful, and the Antigo Daily Journal was responsible for that circumstance in the Wednesday edition of the newspaper. We issue our deepest apology to anyone who was offended, and offer assurances that to the best of our ability, such things will not occur in the future.
“The problem centered on a headline on the sports pages involving an Antigo High School hockey game. The unfortunate coupling of words amounted to a racial and historical slur, which was painful to many of our readers.”
The apology is good, but the damage has been done. What happened with the Journal should be a cautionary tale for all newspapers that it is vital to keep your readers’ interest, but not at the expense of their dignity.