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Hed: (n) Newsroom Jargon for Headlines

Headlines are tricky. They have to grab flighty readers’ attention, tell a story, and hopefully even squeeze in a witticism. The smallest choices affect readers’ first impressions and, sometimes, their only take on the story. Once a week, we analyze the different ways news outlets present the same story.

The Tale:

Reverend Brent Hawkes, a beloved LGBTQ icon, has been charged with gross indecency for an alleged incident with a minor in the 1970s. He has been in court over the past week facing trial. The problem with gross indecency, many experts claim, is that it was an intrinsically homophobic law used to target homosexual men in the first half of the twentieth century. The law has since been repealed and because of this, his supporters believe that is as good a defence as any.

The Heds:

Toronto Rev. Brent Hawkes performed sex act on teen in ’70s, N.S. trial told (The Toronto Star)

In defence of Brent Hawkes (Now Magazine)

The history of gross indecency in Canada (Daily Xtra!)

The Take:

Now’s story, written by a Hawkes supporter Len Rudner, takes an aggressive approach to the indecency laws to make a direct, straightforward case for this defence—a compelling message, especially when it’s splashed across the top of a story. Rudner cites the fact that the charges against Hawkes are based on laws repealed over 30 years ago. “Stereotypes are a poor reason to criminalize what we now understand to be a normal facet of human sexuality,” he writes. The piece goes on to argue that gay men are often stereotyped or seen as predators and pedophiles.

Xtra takes a less aggressive approach to the same topics, looking at the legal analysis of the case from a human rights standpoint. Xtra examines the differences between buggery and gross indecency, and how different charges can be used in the same crime to influence outcomes—especially in terms of prosecution against gay men with gross indecency charges for potentially harmless sexual acts. Mariana Valverde, a criminology professor interviewed by Xtra, concludes with a powerful statement: “[this] sends a message to gay men, older gay men especially, that they may not have gained all of the rights they think they have gained.”

The Star uses a strong headline. While obviously not its intention, leading with the claim rather than “the courts said…” can often be interpreted as convicting the accused. Saying Hawkes performed a sex act on teen, can lead casual readers who might skim the headline on a social media feed to believe that he is guilty whether it is proven in court or not. What sets it apart from the other two stories is the vantage point: while Now and Xtra tell the story through Hawkes’s potential defence, the Star tells the story through the personal accounts of the alleged victims.

As this case progresses, and after it’s done, watch for headlines that convict people before the courts do (or don’t). And keep an eye out for coverage that fails to point out the injustices of problematic laws.

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