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Op-Ed: The non-stories behind those sensational headlines

By Alexander Baron     Jul 12, 2011 in World
Eight years in gaol for a high school prank? Ninety-three days in gaol for growing vegetables in a front garden? If it sounds outrageous, it probably is.
One of the techniques used by both tabloid and “non-tabloid” journalists to catch the eye of the reader is a sensational, overblown, or just plain dishonest headline. Recently, two such headlines have appeared on Google News – two of many.
Teen Faces 8 Years In Jail For Blow-Up Doll Prank was how Jezebel.Com reported this non-story from Indiana; still in the US of A, Michigan Woman Faces 93 Days in Jail for Planting a Vegetable Garden was how Treehugger.Com reported another non-story. Non-stories? Well, to be fair, there is a little interest in both, at the local level, but neither of them is an injustice in the making.
The first story concerns a student who crept into the girls’ restroom to plant a blow up doll in it as some sort of joke. Like adults, kids often do dumb things without thinking of the consequences. Forty years ago when this young at heart 54 year old was a foolish teen, there was no CCTV, nor metal detectors, nor random drug tests in high schools. How times have changed! Here though, the school security people, who were evidently doing their job, saw a mysterious masked man entering a girls’ only area and plant a package. What would you do if you saw a hooded man or any man entering a girls’ restroom without good reason? Right, so the bomb squad was called in, the school day was disrupted, and a bill of $8,000 was apparently run up. The teen responsible found himself in gaol, and although bailed, he now faces a criminal trial. But does he face eight years behind bars? Of course not, as the article actually admits.
In Britain, theft was once capital. The County Chronicle of August 5, 1828 reported that Frances Stephenson, a 21 year old single woman, was sentenced to death at Lincoln Assizes for stealing a horse. Nowadays, the maximum sentence for common or garden theft is seven years. In theory, a shoplifter could be sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. In practice, only repeat offenders or organised gangs are sentenced to hard time for trivial thefts. The Court of Appeal regularly strikes down excessive sentences.
The second story, about the Michigan woman who faces 93 days in gaol, is cut from the same cloth as the first, although a three month sentence is a different proposition from one of eight years. However, reading the whole story here and elsewhere rather than simply the headline, paints an entirely different picture. There is a city ordinance against growing vegetables in front gardens. This may sound petty or trivial but most towns and cities have all manner of such regulations. There may be a preservation order on a particular tree or building; maybe the council doesn’t like dogs fouling its municipal gardens, or maybe they don’t want somebody building an abbatoir next to a primary school.
Julie Bass was given a warning, which she ignored, then a ticket, which she also ignored, finally she was charged with a misdemeanor. Now she is facing trial by jury, which some argue is a waste of money, but it is she who is pressing for a jury trial, probably hoping that unlike a judge who would simply apply the law, a jury will be sympathetic and acquit her. Will she get 93 days in gaol? Almost certainly not, though if convicted she will probably be faced with a hefty bill for costs, but whose fault will that be if it happens?
Occasionally, a story appears which does live up to the hype, like the woman who was gaoled for feeding the pigeons near her home. Shocking, isn’t it? As usual though, there was more to the story than a mere headline could convey.
Here in London, pensioner Jean Knowlson took to feeding the local pigeons, which had prompted complaints from her neighbours since 1989. But she wasn’t simply feeding the birds, she was plastering the area with massive quantities of bread; pigeons were coming from miles around, roosting in the area, keeping her neighbours awake, and causing a health hazard for especially local children with their guano and by attracting rats. Her neighbours asked, begged, and pleaded with her, to no avail. Finally, Croydon Council took out an injuction against her, which she broke. Eventually, in July 1995, she was gaoled not for feeding pigeons but for contempt of court.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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