“Man badly burned when girlfriend’s house set on fire”

That’s the headline. OK, you may be thinking. Must be that the man was the only one in the girlfriend’s house when some malicious person snuck up and set it on fire without his knowledge.

Not quite. The girlfriend, her mother and and her son where there, too. But, you may think, they didn’t get burned. Turns out to be true– though to describe them as ‘OK’ (as the article does) seems wrong after what they’d been through. Still, you’re thinking some malicious person did this.

And you’re right that it was a malicious person. It was that ‘man’ from the headline! The one who’s obviously meant to be the recipient of our sympathy. (I plan to use this example when next teaching implicature.)

That’s bad enough. But just to put the icing on the cake: turns out she wasn’t his girlfriend. She’d just dumped him.

(Thanks, Wade!)

13 thoughts on ““Man badly burned when girlfriend’s house set on fire”

  1. *Face, palm* I might have to use this in my lecture on tabloid stories which report in such a way that males are not blamed.

  2. Yikes. Makes you wonder if the headline writer had even read the text of the story.
    Monkey – that lecture sounds very interesting.

  3. The difference between “when” and “while” is fairly small. I expect that the headline will be changed to that eventually. News headlines on the internet change quite often, and not all the changes are helpful or informative. The first headline is VERY often flawed in some way. I think I would avoid reading too much into that mistake: yes, it’s wrong, but it’s not that hard a slip to make. It happens.

  4. I’ll point out…They might have been trying to get the idea across (sort of a “Dumbest Criminals” scenario) and simply chosen the wrong words. And there’s also libel to consider…

    “Man burned while setting gf’s house on fire” looks pretty accusatory, doesn’t it?

    How about “Arsonist burned during…”

    Given the litigious nature of a lot of people, I’d question word use in that direction before pointing my feminist fingers. Just a thought.

  5. Maybe in Vancouver BC, Synaesthetik. But this is Vancouver Washington. The police caught the man and didn’t charge him, which is fair, I think. He’s in critical condition, she has gasoline in her eyes. The punishment already fits the crime. I think libel laws only apply to somebody who is suspected of a crime, before the trial. Once he’s given a confession, it’s ok to publish the story in the US, isn’t it?

    I’m inclined to side with the rest of the feminist finger pointers here. He could use a little public shaming for what he did to his ex and her little boy to top up the natural consequences of being dumb enough to try to set a fire where it doesn’t belong. Whether it’s unintentional or not, the headline does sound apologist.

  6. I must say I read this as just deserts headline: Man tries to harm others and gets what’s coming to him.

  7. Neil– really? I see the headline as *very* strongly implicating that the man was not the one who set fire to the house. “Man burned when he set fire to girlfriend’s house” would be a just deserts headine (though still wrong about whether she was his girlfriend).

    Michel– ‘when’/’while’ isn’t the issue. “Man burned while girlfriend’s house set on fire” still strongly implicated that someone else set the fire. (“Man burned while setting girlfriend’s house on fire” would be very different. But substituting ‘when’ wouldn’t change that one.)

  8. I find it hard to believe that anyone reading this blog would defend the headline or the story. However, if we’re looking for plausible explanations for why such an obviously flawed headline (and lead) got to the press desk uncorrected, there are better explanations than fear of libel or poor word choice.

    More likely, the police-beat reporter relied too heavily on the cop’s report in writing that first paragraph. Cops speak in vague constructions according to their training. Journalists, according to their training, should counter that tendency by avoiding the passive voice constructions that litter the story in question.

    Police-beat journalists, by the way, tend to be relatively inexperienced and overworked. Mistakes do happen in that context, but that’s not a reason to defer feminist critique. On the contrary, it’s a good reason to advance a feminist critique even further by interrogating the police-speak that informs sexist erasures of misogyny.

  9. Many feminist critiques of this sort of reporting don’t attribute misogynist intentions to journalists. Reporting of this sort has a cumulative effect which can be analysed and critiqued independently of why this sort of reporting arises.

  10. Dee es:

    It’s not so much a defense of a bad headline–we all agree that it’s misrepresentative–but waiting a little before attributing all sorts of hellish intentions to its author. Fresh headlines are consistently garbled when they go online, and later changed. Hell, you yourself offer a plausible explanation. Our point, I think, has been that we should be a little more careful about what we’re attributing to the headline writer, and take care to separate that from our (entirely justified) critique of the headline itself.

    Of course, at this point it’s been several days and the story has passed from the front page, and the headline remains intact. At this point, I think it’s fair to say that either nobody there noticed, or nobody cared.

  11. Michel X.,

    I think Monkey’s comment addresses your concern. Perhaps the headline writer is free of misogynistic intentions. But perhaps the way the headline turned out can still be explained in terms of a misogynistic culture.

  12. I think a lot of the oddness is in the agentless “house set on fire”, when the actual agent of the setting-on-fire is in that very sentence! Agentless constructions aren’t necessarily evasive, but it’s very strange to have the appropriate agent right there and still use an agentless construction. “Man burned after setting ex-girlfriend’s house on fire” would have been my choice.

    The cause may indeed be that the news agency does not wish to accuse somebody of a crime of which he has not been convicted, but that could have been accomplished by the addition of more quotes: “Man ‘burned after setting ex-girlfriend’s house on fire.'” In this way the claim that he set fire to the house is properly attributed to someone other than the news agency (in this case, to “Clark County sheriff’s deputies”).

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