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Monique Keiran: Dead shellfish story generates overheated headlines

Headline writers naturally love big numbers. A story flagged with “300,000 march for justice” grabs more attention than “12 rally downtown to protest mask requirements.
Tens of thousands of dead mussels carpet the rocks at Vancouver's Kitsilano Beach on July 6, more than a week after the peak of B.C.'s heat wave. CHRIS HARLEY, UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA

Headline writers naturally love big numbers. A story flagged with “300,000 march for justice” grabs more attention than “12 rally downtown to protest mask requirements.”

Add in a bit of gore, lurid detail and shock value, and a sensational headline practically writes itself.

And with news media of all sorts seeking to maximize ­ad-click revenue from their online platforms, the race towards clickbait can be ­tempting. Even “serious” news outlets can’t always resist the drive to hook and land readers’ eyes on online ads.

So it’s not surprising that the recent heat wave in B.C. has resulted in a crop of ­colourfully worded internet candy. In particular, a University of British Columbia marine biologist’s report of heat-killed and rotting shellfish on Vancouver’s Kits Beach was a headline writer’s dream. It was, it could be said, a news gourmand’s story dished up, garnished and served up in all its reeking glory on a platter.

With a story like that, how could you not leverage all of the inherent shock, horror, disgust and key words to hook and land readers?

Even the CBC got into the action, with “More than a ­billion seashore animals may have cooked to death in B.C. heat wave, says UBC researcher.” The word “billion” alone would have snagged attention, but “cooked to death” nailed it. Referring to the researcher and the university kept it real, in effect saying “we’re not making this stuff up.”

In the days after the story broke, tracking how ­different news outlets added their own headline touches helped to leaven the dire news of the heat wave’s consequences. By changing this or that word, they de-emphasized and super-emphasized this or that. It also made the headlines their own, differentiating each from the other, almost identical billings.

“Crushing heat wave cooked shellfish alive”…. “Extreme heatwave baked sea creatures in their shells”…. “A Billion ­Seashore Animals Cooked Alive”…. “Heat Wave Is ­Broiling Billions of Marine Animals Alive”…. “1 Billion Sea ­Creatures Cooked to Death”….

This small sample takes us from “cooked to death” to “cooked alive” and from cooked to baked to broiled. It’s not just a heat wave or even an “extreme heat wave,” it’s a “crushing” heat wave.

For those with fond ­memories of high school English, the hard “k” sounds of “crushing” and “cooked” resonates with an appropriate consonance, recalling the sounds made when empty clam shells clack and clatter on your plate or when you crack open a crab claw.

And why not take your lobster crackers and crab picks to pick the headline content apart too? “Cooked Alive”? “Baking … in their shells”? Ah, now this is only shocking when Mother Nature is the chef. When we’re the ones doing the cooking, it’s expected. If you go down to ­Fisherman’s Wharf and buy mussels, clams or oysters to cook at home, you’re buying living creatures, and yes, you’ll be cooking them alive, in their shells. The requirement to drop live ­lobsters and crabs into boiling salt water to cook them keeps many home cooks from considering them for dinner.

Now contrast the breathless banners with the Washington Post’s staid and measured “Heat wave killed marine wildlife en masse.” Here’s a news brand that spurned the free platter of flash-fried ­sensationalism. They’ve sent it back to the kitchen with a “No, thanks. We’ll have the prime rib instead,” ­taking no chances with ­norovirus, red tide, vibrio, or accusations of overstated melodrama from miss-cooked and badly refrigerated shellfish.

Or maybe they considered all the headlines already published and opted to differentiate themselves by tone instead of by choice of adjectives.

Not that the recent heat didn’t hammer other foods or most other plants and critters in B.C. Tragically, hundreds of people died. Pets perished. Chicken farmers spent the heat wave trying to cool barns to prevent their birds from dying, while dairy farmers scrambled to keep their cows as hydrated and cool as possible.

Wildlife rescue organizations took in dozens of animals, mainly juvenile birds of prey. Chilliwack’s Reptile Room reported the loss of hundreds of rodents and at least two snakes and eight geckos. Blueberry, raspberry and tree-fruit crops suffered — yet another financial hit for the province’s farmers. Forests and one community burned, with all the attendant tragic outcomes.

But other than an occasional headline referencing tree fruits being “cooked on the branch,” those stories didn’t tend to generate the same headline excesses.