Murder or mercy?—a choice that isn't that simple

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Headlines are blunt instruments. An article might draw subtle distinctions, but don't expect the headline to. Its job is to grab you by the throat and make you stop and read the article.

And that's generally fine. Most of us don't read the news carefully enough to worry about nuances. Or I should say, most of us don't read most news that carefully. That is how we read the stories about us—about the lives we've lived and the things we know a lot about. So headlines and news stories are most likely to bother the most informed readers. Sometimes, and for the same reason, they even bother the reporter.

Here's an example: "Murder or mercy?"—a recent headline in the Los Angeles Times. A stark choice, no? Too stark for readers from the disability rights movement I came across praising the story and ripping the headline on Facebook. And too stark for the reader who commented on the Times website: "A well-written article with a poorly-chosen title. Invoking the 'mercy-killing' of people with disabilities before the reader even begins puts the absolutely wrong frame around the well-chosen words of disability advocates."

The article by Lee Romney told the story of an 88-year-old Oakland, California, man—a World War II vet who'd "grown hard of hearing and become a bit paranoid"—who'd been caring for his 57-year-old daughter since she suffered a devastating brain injury 26 years ago. The man, William Knox Roberts, was stricken with lung and liver ailments and he sensed his end was near. Then who would protect his daughter, Marian? One night in August he fired a bullet into Marian and then turned the gun on himself.

The modest attention the two deaths received in the local media conveyed "a certain sympathy," Romney wrote, but she made it clear there was another way of looking at the tragedy. "In the disability rights community, the familiar narrative struck a nerve," she reported. The important question, she was told by a professor who teaches disability rights, is "Who are the people in this culture who are vulnerable to being thought better off dead and how do we protect them?"

Romney cited research by Donna Cohen, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who has studied caregiver homicides and found that "older victims are generally killed by men—most often spouses—who love them deeply but are suffering from depression and are sometimes acutely physically ill as well." Cohen told the reporter, "My read of Marian's case is that this was not a mercy killing. This was a terminally ill, severely stressed father."

The reader who left a comment objecting to the headline of Romney's story went on to say, "If she questioned, at times, whether her life was worth living [which Marian had] . . . let's not all pile onto that with the assumption that it was not. Lots of us question the quality and value of our lives from time to time. But those of us who aren't visibly disabled have the privilege of making the occasional 'I've had enough' remark without getting swept up in the eagerness of euthanasia advocates to help us snuff out our lives."

Romney doesn't like the headline either, and she holds herself partly responsible for it. When reporters working on stories file them in the Times's internal computer system they give them labels, and the label she chose, "murder-or-mercy," wound up the headline. But the notion that Roberts committed either an act of murder or an act of mercy wasn't her perspective—it was the perspective she wrote her story to challenge. "The body of the story makes the questions, concerns and complexities clear and calls on our readers to look beyond the 'murder or mercy' narrative," she e-mailed me.

"Murder or mercy" reduces the complexities to either/or, and in the view of Dick Sobsey tips the scales in favor of mercy. Sobsey is director of a developmental disabilities center in Alberta, and he's someone Romney talked to before writing her article—though he didn't show up in it. I spotted Sobsey on Facebook calling the headline "dreadful" and observing: "Interesting how different it sounds if you just reverse it to ask 'Mercy or Murder?'"

How different is that? I wondered. I wrote him and asked, and received a brief lecture on the nuances of word order.

"In general," he replied, "the phrase 'murder or mercy' has been used repeatedly in the media in regard to so-called mercy killings for many years. I can't trace the whole history but it goes back at least to the 1940s. It is generally used to headline articles or as a subheading for articles that presume to ask the reader to form his or her own opinion but actually have the bias toward suggesting maybe it was understandable, justifiable, or even heroic and should not be thought of as murder. So I generally don't like the phrase because I am generally not on that side of the argument.

"I don't think this article was pro-euthanasia so this was an exception."

To explain how word order matters, he offered a topical example.

"If I ask is [Edward] Snowden a 'hero or an traitor?', I think it is different than asking is he a 'traitor or hero?' The first one suggests some people may think he is a hero but if you look closely you will realize he is a traitor. The second one suggests some people may think he is a traitor but if you look closely you will realize he is a hero."

No one reads stories about so-called mercy killings more carefully than people who might have been killed themselves as a so-called act of mercy and are glad they weren't. One is Steve Drake, a research analyst for the disability rights group Not Dead Yet; he was born hydrocephalic, and his parents ignored the advice they got from the doctor who delivered him to keep him comfortable and let him die. Drake is someone I've written about from time to time, and someone else Romney interviewed for background.

I also asked him about Romney's story, and its headline.

"Alternative headline could have been 'Caregiver homicide/suicides—Acts of Mercy or Desperation?' he replied, and with a nod to Cohen's research went on, "You could run a subtitle 'why is it men that do most of the killing?'"

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