Readers call out headline

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

The headline on a story last Wednesday about a peaceful protest in Chautauqua Park generated criticism from readers who found it deficient.

“Protesters try to make Black Lives Matter,” it read. I wrote it.

The story below the headline, by reporter Tom Cullen, did not generate controversy.

I thought the headline was a straight statement of what was reported in the story. Protesters were attempting to make black lives matter to everyone. That is what I intended. Some readers thought it slighted the protesters or those who organized it. I meant nothing of the sort. In an editorial I wrote in that same edition, “We can get there,” we lauded the event organizers and the community for the efforts they have made in trying to elevate our discussion of race and culture.

The headline suggests that America as a whole does not value black lives. Obviously, we don’t. Iowa locks up more blacks than any other race by far. Blacks die at a higher rate of coronavirus in Waterloo and the governor told them to get to work at Tyson. Atlanta was burning down last weekend after a police officer killed a black man, after Minneapolis was torched following the death of a handcuffed black man under the knee of an officer. In Storm Lake, we are attempting to do better. We are trying to make black lives matter.

The task of writing headlines that are compelling is challenged by space, and often five or six words can be read through different prisms. Some black and Latinx readers said they saw no problem with the headline. They read it a different way. People are tense. Emotions are high. Our President is fanning the flames of racism. People read what they read.

I may be clumsy on deadline. But I am not a practitioner of racism or oppression. I am racist in many ways and fight it every day. It was baked into me growing up in Storm Lake where the “n” word was commonly used and when I attended an all-white, all-male college. Past tense. I also was reared in an Irish Catholic FDR household where racism and violence were condemned, and by teachers who drilled into our heads that all of God’s children are equal. But I am still racist, and sexist, and I try to overcome it. My children are better than me.

This newspaper since its inception 30 years ago, from its very first editorial, has been the most ardent voice in Iowa for civil rights, and especially for immigrant rights. When The Des Moines Register and Sioux City Journal were endorsing Steve King and his brand of white supremacy, The Storm Lake Times was calling him out. We would like to take credit for his defeat but can’t. But we were there when nobody else was.

What we did yesterday is no good. What we do today is what matters.

So we draw a lesson that we all need to be aware of how people perceive our words. I am aware, and I am aware that I am a white-haired white man who tries — attempts, strives — to write with precision. That people misinterpreted what I wrote suggests I could have written a better headline. I will try in the next edition.

It also should be a lesson for people to remember who their friends are.

There is a lot of literal and figurative shooting of the messenger right now, and it is coming in from all sides. Suggestions on social media that The Storm Lake Times is racist, ignorant and oppressive in fact ignores our history of advocating for those whose lives matter least to a corporate, cultural and government power structure. Please give us that, because it has cost us a lot.

We will continue to cover protests, race and culture, and how government responds as straight as we know how. We try our hardest to get all points of view into the newspaper. We will advocate for more officers of color in law enforcement ranks (the Storm Lake Police are trying, and it takes time) as we always have, for more candidates of color in local elections (none on the Board of Supervisors, for example) as we always have, and for stronger worker protections in the form of unions, as we always have.

And, as always, we will try to be fair and precise, while being sensitive to how our words are interpreted. No doubt we will fall short, and welcome your criticism in letters to the editor. We also encourage everyone to subscribe so they can become more familiar with our work on behalf of a stronger community of many colors.

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