Landslide headline both succeeded and failed
By Mike Wiggins
The headline shook me when I unfolded the paper Wednesday morning.
“Tomb of mud,” it read in big, bold type — much bigger and bolder than we normally run in The Daily Sentinel.
The angry and upset calls and emails began early and continued throughout the day and into Thursday. I received about three dozen of them. Other employees here received many others.
Readers demanded to know: How could you write such an insensitive, disrespectful headline? How would you feel if it were your family members missing up there? Some screamed. Some broke down in tears. One young man told me matter-of-factly he would have “burned down your building” if it had been his family involved.
I understand the strong, emotional reactions, because if you live in Plateau Valley, you lost three family members Sunday, whether you were related to them or not. The strong bonds in those close-knit communities on Grand Mesa were made clear to me in the conversations I had with the babysitters, teachers, daughters, friends and neighbors of Wes Hawkins and Clancy and Dan Nichols.
We know the power behind the words that appeared at the top of our front page Wednesday, the images they conjure. Those words are hard to read, uncomfortable — even nauseating for some. They reflect the terrible reality that has hit the Hawkins and Nichols families, the residents of Collbran and all who know them.
We are, unfortunately, in the business of occasionally relaying horrible news. And we’re in the tough but necessary position of telling stories fraught with grief and emotion as honestly and dispassionately as possible. That approach to our job doesn’t mean we are uncompassionate people. That approach does mean that sometimes people will be offended by what they see in the paper.
The editors here met Tuesday afternoon, just as we do every weekday afternoon, to discuss the content that will appear in the next day’s newspaper, as well as where and how it will appear. On Tuesday, we decided to dedicate the entire front page to coverage of the landslide — an extremely rare move but one we felt was warranted.
The copy editor who designed the page and wrote the headline did so with multiple goals in mind — to starkly, accurately and meaningfully reflect a life-altering event and its impacts on the people and the land in Plateau Valley. The work he and others did to put together Wednesday’s front page was intended to have a sobering, emotional effect on those who viewed it, based on factual, fair reporting. That is what stirs people to action, to want to improve their lives and their communities, to come to the aid of those in need.
Greg Ruland, one of our reporters who has covered this story, put it best in a response to one of the many critical emails we received:
“The purpose of a headline is to attract the reader’s eye with a dramatic turn of phrase that accurately portrays the story. Based on those criteria, the headline succeeds. It is stark, accurate and eye-catching.
“On the other hand, it also challenges a community standard for what is appropriate in headlines. It is insensitive to the feelings of the families and all the folks who live out your way. On that basis, it fails.”
Ultimately, it’s incumbent upon us to listen to you, the community, and reflect you in what we do here. If we do that honestly, fairly and thoughtfully, then I believe we are doing our job properly.