- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2002

Wayward newspaper headlines can be lurid, bombastic, biased, unintentionally comedic, thoughtless, grammatically offensive and just plain wrong creating persistent headaches for a publication.

New Jersey's Trentonian newspaper is learning that lesson this week.

On July 10, the paper ran a story about a fire at a state psychiatric hospital. The accompanying headline read, "Roasted Nuts."

Outrage and displeasure followed, said Tony Persichilli, the copy editor who wrote the headline. The next day, the Trentonian published Mr. Persichilli's lengthy, emotional apology for his two-word gaffe, which absolved the paper and the two reporters who wrote the story from any wrongdoing.

"It was inaccurate. It was insensitive. I take full responsibility," he wrote.

The headline was technically wrong. The three-alarm fire at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital did not injure any of facility's 450 patients and was confined to the roof of a concrete-and-stone building dating back to the 1840s.

An account in the competing Trenton Times was headlined, "Fire Chars State Hospital."

Mr. Persichilli blamed his background for his mistake.

"I'm old enough that, when I grew up, people at the 'Vroom Building,' as TPH was referred to then, were called names that no longer are appropriate. But that was long ago," Mr. Persichilli said in his apology.

He declined further comment yesterday.

Trentonian publisher Dave Bonfield said his paper had completed its mea culpa. "We ran a retraction. It was an egregious human error, and we're apologetic. And that's all we can do," he said yesterday.

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill is not so sure.

"This goes beyond irresponsibility. It's almost unfathomable," policy director Ron Honberg said yesterday. "Yes, media deadlines present a close call. But I'm shocked. This is one of the worst examples of prejudice and discrimination toward people with mental illnesses in recent memory."

Yesterday, Mr. Honberg cited the headline during testimony before the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, created by President Bush in April to improve the nation's treatment facilities. He says he will cite the headline again during an "anti-stigma conference" sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health later this month.

"I can't imagine how this headline passed muster in whatever checks-and-balance system that is in place at the Trentonian," Mr. Honberg said.

There may be legal implications.

In a letter to Mr. Bonfield, NAMI director Richard Birkel said the headline was a "failure of internal leadership and gross institutional irresponsibility," and called the apology inadequate.

"Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and potentially other federal and state laws, the headline provides prima facie evidence of a hostile work environment for people with mental illnesses or their family members," Mr. Birkel wrote, advising the paper to take "remedial actions."

The group also is investigating "potential legal action."

Meanwhile, the media itself is in for some sensitivity training. Mr. Honberg said NAMI is working on new guidelines for journalists who cover mental health issues, "in conjunction with the National Mental Health Institute and a journalism school."

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