"What Our Oklahoma Execution Headlines Say About Us"
CREDIT: DAVE MARTIN/AP
Americans don’t all agree on capital punishment. We argue about who deserves to be executed, how executions should be administered, whether or not we should have capital punishment at all. But there is one thing upon which just about every major American media organization seemed to agree: the execution of Clayton D. Lockett on Tuesday night in Oklahoma was botched.
The AP headline: “OKLAHOMA INMATE DIES AFTER EXECUTION IS BOTCHED.” “One Execution Botched, Oklahoma Delays the Next” said the New York Times. “Inmate dies following botched Oklahoma execution, second execution delayed” was the Washington Post‘s take; “Oklahoma halts botched execution but inmate dies later” was the Baltimore Sun‘s. The Wall Street Journal went with “Oklahoma Execution Botched Due to ‘Vein Failure,’ Officials Say.” NBC: “Oklahoma Inmate Dies After Execution Is Botched.” NPR: “After One Botched Execution, Oklahoma Stays A Second.” CNN: “Oklahoma stops execution after botching drug delivery; inmate dies.” You get the idea.
Lockett was convicted of raping a 19 year old girl and burying her alive, yet the gruesome way in which he died has, this week, taken over the story of the gruesome manner in which he murdered another person. During Lockett’s execution, which wound up taking over 40 minutes to complete, Lockett was declared unconscious and then started writhing, gasping and crying out. By all objective metrics, this was an execution gone very, very wrong.
David Autry, Lockett’s attorney, was quoted in multiple stories as saying, “This was totally botched,” so he’s likely the voice that introduced that word into this conversation. Still, I was surprised to see “botched,” such a charged word, in so many different headlines. “Botched” doesn’t have the gloss of objectivity that news usually requires. There’s a sense of fire underneath it, a feeling that what everyone really wanted to write was “fucked up” but, in deference to decorum, went with the next best thing.
The word “botched” rarely makes headlines. Even the New York Times‘s huge, longform piece on the abysmal mishandling of the Florida Statue University rape case used the less-heated term of art “Flawed Rape Investigation” in the headline. The last time “botched” found its way to the top of A1 across the nation? The Obamacare rollout. And when the word is used, simultaneously, by so many news organizations in a kind of accidental, national jinx (excluding those who get national and foreign news from wires and other such sources, it’s not like all these places are coordinating headlines with each other), people notice.
So what propelled “botched” to a place in headlines across the country?
John McIntyre, who helms “You Don’t Say,” the Baltimore Sun‘s language blog, wrote via email that he proofed the Sun page with the Oklahoma execution article and green-lit the headline, though it wasn’t written by a Sun staffer. “‘Botched’ was in a deck headline on a module shipped from Tribune which we chose to place in the paper. We have the discretion to rewrite headlines and correct text in these modules, and we occasionally do, but only for cause…. I saw nothing inaccurate or objectionable in the wording.” I asked why other words wouldn’t have worked—would a “failed” execution imply that Lockett had survived?—and McIntyre replied: “‘Failed’ struck me as not strong enough for an ineptly managed execution. ‘Bungled’ would have had a comic overtone; ‘botched’ seemed just right.”
According to Peter Sokolowski, lexicographer and Editor-at-Large at Merriam Webster, “botched” is this week’s most-looked up word on Merriam-Webster.com. “It captured the attention of the country, without question,” he said. For context, Merriam-Webster.com gets 100 million page views a month on the site and the apps, “so it ends up being a large snapshot of what America is thinking about,” said Sokolowski. The readership is “overwhelmingly American” and it’s safe to say that if a word becomes, as “botched” did, one of the top ten words on the site, it’s been searched for by millions of people.
The most recent definition of “botched” from Merriam-Webster is “to do (something) badly : to ruin (something) because of carelessness or a lack of skill.” In other words, “There’s no question that it does imply judgment,” said Sokolowski. “There’s lots of judgment denoted by this word. And I think everyone agrees that this [case] is something that we can show judgment about in the press.”
“Botched” is “a powerful word,” Sokolowski said, in part because of its origin: it’s English, not from the Latin. “It’s got that single-syllable urgency, that guttural sound, like our swear words in English.” Latin words are softer, flowier; the difference between a Latin-based word and an English one is the difference between being “impecunious” and being “broke.” Latin-based words “intellectually distance the event from the reader,” he said. English words like “botched” typically “bring an emotional immediacy to the message.”
So what does it mean that we all agreed on a word like this? “I think it’s worth noting that the culture, somehow, comes to an agreement about how we tell ourselves the news,” said Sokolowski. And that, even in just the facts ma’am style reporting, there’s no such thing as an objective story, because there’s no such thing as an objective word. “It’s actually impossible to have no point of view” when you’re working, as journalists do, with language, Sokolowski said. “Presenting facts carefully is the best we can do, because language is always loaded with assumptions and cultural references.”