When a mannequin head makes a story

The news couldn’t have been weirder last week — at least I hope it can’t be much weirder — when we wrote separate stories on men accused of performing sexual acts using, well, let’s just say unusual props.
One was accused of using a chicken “for the purpose of arousing and gratifying the sexual desire of a person.” Our story says “little additional information was available,” which in this case is probably a good thing.
The other allegedly was caught on video surveillance in a Medford parking garage elevator performing some kind of sexual motions on a mannequin head, then setting fire to it with an accomplice.
This story prompted discussions in the newsroom regarding wording, accuracy and placement of details in the story.
The headline on our first post, written based on what we knew at the time, said, “Two arrested for arson after one allegedly had sex with a mannequin head.”
I asked the reporter a question I’m quite sure I’ve never had to ask before in my 30-year career as an editor: “Do we know for sure he had sex with the mannequin head?”
This led to a rather uncomfortable discussion over what “had sex with” means, the state of the man’s zipper and other delicate matters, and to the reporter’s credit, he answered questions with a straight face that was only slightly pink in color.
Medford police told us that in the video, you can see the man making thrusting motions with his hips up against the mannequin head, but not the state of the zipper or the other delicate matters.
The reporter and I decided to change our headline and our story to be as accurate as possible:
“Mannequin head used in apparent sex act, set ablaze in Medford elevator.”
Thrusting motions with one’s hips constituted an apparent sex act of some sort, we reasoned, though not necessarily actually having sex with the head.
The reporter initially had placed that information far down in the story, leading with the arson charge instead. An editor saw the mannequin detail and moved it to the lead and headline, which made the reporter slightly uncomfortable but I believe was the right call.
In this era of massive amounts of information constantly pummeling busy readers, part of our job is catching people’s attention with a compelling lead, then giving as much information as possible at the top so if readers can’t finish the story, they know the bones of it, at least. It’s called an inverted pyramid style of writing.
If you’d heard about this incident and brought it up at a dinner party, would you mention the arson first or what the guy was allegedly doing to the mannequin? I’m guessing you’d lead with the sex act.
Someone on Facebook wondered why we had to include the apparent sex act in our story in the first place — a fair question.
We do intentionally leave out salacious details in some stories, especially when they could be unnecessarily harmful to the victim, as in child sexual abuse stories.
But in this case, we believe it was an important part of the story. We first saw it referenced in passing in a Facebook post by the police and we thought, “Wait, what??” It screamed for explanation and context.
Mannequin head. Apparent sex act. Arson. In a Medford parking garage elevator. Who wouldn’t read that story?

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    Cathy Noah

    Believe it or not, journalists are real people, too. Editor Cathy Noah explores the inner workings of the newsroom, explaining why the Mail Tribune did — or didn't — do something that made readers angry / sad / happy / incredulous / stupefied. ... Full Profile
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