Reading the headlines over my morning coffee yesterday, I was flummoxed by the way the media approached an incident that happened over the Thanksgiving weekend. According to the reports, an off-duty San Francisco cop named Christopher Kohrs, 38, was driving a Dodge Charger westbound on Broadway around 2 a.m. on Sunday when he slammed into two pedestrians at the intersection with Montgomery. Both victims were taken to the hospital with serious injuries. Kohrs abandoned his truck and fled the scene.
He was later arrested.
ABC7 News reported that one of the victims is Franco Vilchez, who sustained a broken neck, fractured eye socket, broken nose, broken jaw, and brain bleeding. Vilchez is a veteran of the Iraq War.
The incident is frightening enough: A veteran officer whom we entrust to keep us safe apparently broke the law and hurt people badly. He then ran away and left them to die.
But the other disturbing element of this story is the way it was reported. When I studied journalism, I learned the “inverted pyramid.” Basically, it says put the most pertinent facts at the top of the story and less salient information farther down.
Then how is it that nearly all the news outlets had “Hot Cop” as the first two words of the headline? Some had it in the first paragraph. All of them mentioned the cop's good looks -- he had done some modeling and his picture is popular on the Internet -- by the second paragraph.
“It has a perverse way of trivializing the incident,” said Edward Wasserman, dean of the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “It's a knee-jerk and typical reaction of how news is defined today -- you have somebody who had a brief moment of public notoriety that becomes the peg for the story, rather than the life-threatening injuries he inflicted.”
Did headline and story editors think “hot cop” was a sexy draw for clicks? Try to imagine the two victims and their families reading “Hot Cop of the Castro Arrested." Is the headline supposed to be funny? If it is, I don't get it. I doubt Mr. Vilchez will find it funny either, if he's able to read it.
If the cop had committed a rape or murder, would the stories have started by reporting that he is handsome? Not to be flip, but take it to a bigger extreme: Imagine reading a headline such as “hot terrorist beheads hostage.” Once again, we see a media that thinks drunk driving, speeding, and hit-and-run are lightweight news.
“It has the unintended effect of turning this into a goofy, off-beat story, when it's a deadly serious matter of misconduct,” said Wasserman.
True enough. And perhaps reporters need to be reminded that 31,000 Americans die on our roads every year, and a good number of those are killed in incidents such as the one with the “hot cop.” I know journalists want to write snappy headlines. But have some respect for the victims. Here's your headline: “San Francisco Cop Arrested for Hit-and-Run Crash.”