We could have used better words
April 22, 2007
Our newspaper recently published a story about an F-16 pilot killed in Iraq last year. The story reported details about the cause of the crash.
The main headline read: “Pilot error caused crash”
The secondary headline was: “Air Force report: Pilot of Cannon F-16 died protecting ground troops.”
Several readers have complained that the headline — at least the main headline — was offensive to the pilot’s family and have asked for a public apology. Here's what I think:
• Maj. Troy Gilbert, who has family in Clovis and was married to a Clovis native, died with great honor, in service to his country. By all accounts, including those reported in the first sentence of the story in question, he died while trying to protect others after he couldn't pull the jet out of its attack path and it crashed. He was killed instantly on Nov. 27.
• Like his family, we should all be proud of his actions and grateful for his dedication and loyalty to America.
• Our headlines were accurate. The Air Force investigation into the tragedy concluded that Maj. Gilbert’s “excessive motivation to succeed” and his “compulsion to keep his eyes on the intended target” led to the crash. We know that Maj. Gilbert’s jet was not shot down. We know the crash was not caused by mechanical failure. The angle of his attack, which was his decision, cost Maj. Gilbert his life.
• While the headlines were right, I wish we’d selected different words for the main headline. The pilot’s efforts to protect ground troops, for example, could have been the primary focus. That also would have been an accurate headline. “Attack angle led to crash” also tells readers what occurred with even more precision.
• I wish I’d asked about the headline before we published it. I’ve been in this business 27 years and I know which stories have potential for controversy and I should know how to balance truth with compassion.
• Our headline writer, the stepfather of an Iraq war veteran, had no intention of hurting anyone with his words. His only intent was to convey information to our readers.
I have offered personal apologies to two members of Maj. Gilbert’s family and will apologize to others who contact me.
I’m sorry we’ve added to their grief.
We could have selected better words.
I wish we had.
David Stevens is editor for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. He can be contacted at 1-800-819-9925. His e-mail address is: