No one should understand that more keenly than journalists. Language, written and spoken, is our toolbox.
But words chosen for a couple of recent front page headlines have generated a response that was not intended.
In one instance, a headline on a story about a woman found dead by the side of a road referred to the body as a "corpse." Technically that's correct. Readers felt that was disrespectful and let us know in no uncertain terms.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Olympian
Among the comments posted with the story online:
"Headline: 'Corpse found ...' C'mon, Olympian, can't you be a bit more delicate? 'Body' is way better than 'corpse'! You sound like one of the gossip rags."
"Have you no shame or compassion for the victim or her family? Your choice of words has reached a new low."
The headline writer chose the word because it was succinct and accurate. But for readers, the word carried ugly connotations. The reporter, by the way, does not write the headline. The reporter submits the story, the story is edited and then the headline is written, typically hours later.
Was it the best word choice for that headline? Probably not, considering the way it was interpreted. Will we use the word again? Only with more careful consideration.
The second instance occurred last week in the headline above the story about the speaking appearance by 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who faces a court martial this week.
Here's what two readers said online:
"Seeing this morning's headline calling Watada 'a true patriot' was a direct slap in the face to those of us who have loved ones serving in Iraq at this very moment. If Watada is 'a true patriot' then what is my husband? The way I see it is that Watada signed up for a job, knowing all that it could encompass. He took advantage of the US Army to fund his college education and at the first sign of actually having to fulfill his obligation he backed out like a coward. Many soldiers don't agree with the reasons for our presence over there, but bottom line is that they committed, voluntarily, to a job and just because they may not agree with the politics behind it all they will not back down from their obligation."
"The headline is awful. I wonder how the military feels reading that this morning. Greeted as a hero. Our city first tells the Navy to piss off. Then, this paper has the nerve as to use the word hero with Watada."
A headline should convey immediately what a story is about. This particular headline captured a quote from someone attending the event and incorporated the words as a reflection of the general audience reaction. Was it accurate? It seems to be, from the reporter's account. But was it a clear headline? No. Readers interpreted the headline as the newspaper's assessment of Lt. Watada. It is not the newspaper's role or our intention to take a position on Lt. Watada outside the Opinion page.
This was a hastily written headline produced on deadline, but we work on deadline every night. This headline should have been improved on. There's no excuse.
Words matter. Thank you for reminding us.
Vickie Kilgore is executive editor of The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-754-4223 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.