Student guest post: When are warnings in headlines enough?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Sarah Sessoms is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill double-majoring in journalism and sports administration. A former world champion equestrian, she grew up on a horse farm in Hillsborough, N.C. She is an intern for the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team and hopes to embark on a career in the athletic administration after graduation in May.

During the NCAA Tournament this year, there was one storyline that you could barely miss hearing about: Kevin Ware’s injury. (In case you did miss it, the Louisville basketball player broke his leg in a horrific way during the game again Duke in the Elite Eight).

CBS showed the injury during its live coverage, then again on replay before deciding not to air the injury again. If you were watching it live like me, you were probably OK never to see it again. But the video of Ware breaking his leg blew up on YouTube, and now, over two weeks later, it has almost 5 million hits.

CBS started the discussion with what they thought was the best decision for everyone: don’t replay the injury and keep the coverage to the basics. No warnings, no graphic images. Many followed CBS’s lead.

But other media outlets didn’t choose to do it this way. One such example is Deadspin’s headline (I won’t link to it, because it takes you to the video of the injury itself). The headline to its article and accompanying media reads: “Kevin Ware Suffered Maybe The Most Gruesome Injury In The History Of Televised Sports [WARNING: VERY GROSS]”.

But when you write a story, is the headline with a warning enough? Is it too much? Should an editor warn the audience that the article, or any corresponding media, is graphic? Should readers be prepared for the content?

The answer is that it depends. Warnings for graphic content are common, but they need to be used sparingly.

What to focus on here is “Warning: Very gross.” True, the break is extremely gross. You could even call it disturbing.  They’re right about needing a warning on some level, but it shouldn’t be in the headline. And there has to be a better, more professional way to put it. In this piece Deadspin goes beyond reporting the injury, they sensationalize it.

But is this enough of a warning for the violent leg break? Is this even enough warning for the giant video that graces the front of this article? Did the editors who wrote the headline think that a warning would be enough? Or is this sensationalism for the sake of getting more hits on the website? There’s no clear answer, but I have a feeling that the more gruesome the headline, the more people would want to click on it.

Let’s compare with some other headlines from the incident. “Louisville’s Ware leaves with right leg injury” or “Horrific injury: Louisville’s Kevin Ware breaks leg vs. Duke in Elite Eight.” These headlines are far better for the privacy of the student-athlete, his family and his team.

Warnings are a really good tool to make sure that readers are aware of the disturbing content. In fact, one of the articles gives its own warning when linking to pictures of the injury. But the fact that it is in the body of the text makes it a much better option than sticking it in a headline. By putting a colloquial warning in their headline, Deadspin took away from the news value of the incident and placed it squarely as a spectacle.

When writing a headline for something this shocking, it’s good to remember all of the parties involved. Yes, it’s good to get readers’ attention, but it’s better to inform them of what happened.

The latter headlines are better for search engines and give many more details to readers in a rush. The headline with the warning only makes a bigger deal out of the injury, with little respect for Ware. In this situation, some media outlets forgot that the injured athlete is still a person, even if his leg break was “very gross.”

All in all, readers needed to be aware that the content of the Ware injury could cause some discomfort. In this case, the warning was definitely warranted, had it been phrased correctly. Where the warning goes wrong is focusing on the gruesomeness of the injury and by doing so taking away from the humanity of the situation.