The headline in the Richmond Times-Dispatch (April 18, 2019) blared loudly with what suggested to be a smidgen of smuggery involving a senior staff person’s departure from Governor Ralph Northam’s PAC:
Northam PAC’s finance director leaves following yearbook photo scandal
The words themselves conjure a vision of a principled political apparatchik ditching the Governor for his decades-old stupidity. The headline suggests the departure was because of the blackface incident, which was first reported on or about February 1, 2019. In fact, the individual had been on the Northam PAC staff since September 2018, and had been named finance director in February 2018 but continued serving until April 2019. At that point, she was named an adviser to another PAC called Energized for Change, a group led by Delegate (now Minority Leader) Eileen Filler-Corn.
Filler-Corn, the first woman to lead Virginia’s Democratic delegates, announced formation of the new PAC on April 17, 2019. So the question arises about the Times-Dispatch headline’s use of the phrase “leaves following” the photo scandal. The connotation is that a link exists between the departure and the photo scandal, despite the lapse of nearly three months between the events. In its entirety, the headline presents a cause-and-effect connection. Upon reflection, that sequencing fails. In logic and in Latin, this is characterized as post hoc ergo propter hoc; or, after this, therefore because of this. It’s a fallacy in logic and the logicians parsed it perfectly. If the departure occurred a century from the date of the first reporting of the blackface incident, it would have been “following yearbook photo scandal.”
So the advice to the reader is to pay careful attention—and bring a dose of healthy skepticism–to such titillating headlines and news stories, especially those attempting to entice with sensational material and especially those implying connections that may not, in fact, be present. In a world already besieged by 24/7 news, the job of the reader is made even more difficult when ordinarily reliable news media succumb to loaded phrases and tactics. Headlines such as this only further diminish the credibility of vital institutions and values such as a free press. It’s an even worse phenomenon when the reported event is pretty much a nothingburger.