Explaining ‘guns’ in a headline

If ever there was doubt that the word “guns” is a hot-button issue with residents of Rappahannock County there isn’t any longer.

This past Wednesday, March 15, just as the Rappahannock News was going to press, a considerable number of Rappahannock County High School students participated in a “walkout,” according to a school administration statement, among other reasons “to pay tribute to the 17 lives lost during the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida exactly one month ago.

“The students took turns placing roses around the flag pole as each victim’s name was read aloud,” the statement read. “The event concluded with the students creating a circle, hand in hand, as a student played Taps on a trumpet. The walkout was a part of the nationwide event, organized by Women’s March Youth Empower to bring awareness to issues such as school safety and the effects of gun violence. Students across the United States participated in the walkout for exactly 17 minutes, one minute for each of the victims lost, at precisely 10 a.m.

“According to Rappahannock County Public Schools’ Superintendent Shannon Grimsley: ‘Rappahannock County Schools was careful not to endorse nor prohibit students from participation in the National Walkout. It was very important that this event be completely student-led and voluntary, and also that regular instruction would continue for those that wished not to participate. The administration worked with student organizers from the beginning to be sure that they understood the policies regarding such events as well as explain our concerns for student safety and set expectations for student behavior during such an event.’”

At this newspaper’s request, and given the press deadline, as quickly as the walkout concluded the Rappahannock school system kindly forwarded its statement and several photographs of participating students. Two of the photos, accompanied by a four-sentence caption culled from the school’s longer statement, were then placed on the front page.

Whereas the caption included what had transpired and reasons behind the RCHS walkout, the headline above it — “Rapp students stage walkout over guns” — was not reflective of the specific RCHS event. Rather, the headline reflected the purpose of the RCHS affiliated National School Walkout in protest of “gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” as we genuinely knew it to be.

Unfortunately, the headline was not updated when the caption was inserted. Without a doubt, the RCHS walkout was not specifically over “guns” — “gun violence” surely, according to the school’s statement, but that was only one of the stated purposes for students leaving their classrooms.

Regardless, in the rush to publish we goofed, and recalling the sequence of events is not offering an excuse but an explanation of why the headline appeared as it did. Understandably, the uproar and ensuing debate from readers was fast and furious, not the least being RCHS English teacher Sheila R. Lamb.

“I am writing to express my overwhelming disappointment in the Rappahannock News headline from 3/15/18 ‘Students Stage Walkout over Guns.’ Nothing could have been further from the truth,” she began.

“As an English teacher at Rappahannock County High School, I teach students how to research and how to back up their assertions with facts. I try to teach them the difference between valid sources, between fact and opinion. Unfortunately, you have just made my job much more difficult.

“Your headline for this event, without any accompanying facts, quotes, or personal interviews, feeds into the whole problem of ‘fake news,’ something I spend every day trying to combat. By not bothering to include information from student-created posters about the memorial they planned or the informational letter sent home by the administration, you left out the key intentions of our students. This headline was an interpretation that was your own.

“Their stated goal was to show unity with Parkland and hold a respectful memorial. The gun issue was not mentioned once by the students as part of the event (full disclosure: the memorial was recorded for me by a colleague. I stayed in my classroom with students who chose not to participate).

“While some may believe that simply holding the memorial itself was taking a political stance on the gun issue, I do not believe that was the intention or purpose of our students. They are, in my opinion, well aware of the presence of guns in our county for hunters and hobbyists and many of our students are hunters themselves. No one was purposely trying to use this memorial to get into this multifaceted issue.

“Your headline was written as it was to stir up controversy. You have used our young adults as clickbait, as a way — it seems — to sell papers. And now, my students have had a new lesson in how to evaluate media sources.”

The school administration’s statement quoted two unnamed RCHS students and one observer of the walkout (in addition, see today’s letter to the editor from RCHS 9th grade student Olivia Scheulen  in the Comment section).

Quoted in full, one RCHS student stated, “We care about our school and each other,” while another explained: “We really wanted to remember the victims. They were so young.”

As for the observer, “This makes me feel like there is hope for the future.”

For that we can all agree.

About John McCaslin 448 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.