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Biased Headlines

Consider the following headlines concerning the shooting of Bothan Shem Jean:

Police officer charged in shooting death of unarmed neighbor

Dallas police officer Amber Guyger says she entered Botham Shem Jean’s apartment by mistake at end of her shift; Casey Stegall reports.

Sep. 10, 2018 —Fox News

Dallas police officer charged with manslaughter in fatal shooting of unarmed man in his own apartment

A Dallas police officer was arrested Sunday in connection with the shooting death of Botham Shem Jean, the Texas Rangers said.

Amber Guyger, who is white, was off-duty when she shot Jean, a black man, after mistakenly entering his apartment at the complex where she also lived, police said Thursday.

Sep. 9, 2018  —CNN


The Fox News/CNN divide is not only a topic of national conversation; it is a determinant of national conversation. Whether they are from San Francisco, California or Akron, Ohio, readers following national news have likely heard about the shooting of Botham Shem Jean. However, the manner in which they heard about that story—the words they read, and the articles they have or haven’t delved into—is just as important as their awareness of the story itself.

Headlines, subheads, and ledes in news articles tactically contain—and omit—a significant amount of information. Each of the articles above is part of a scroll on the respective outlets’ webpages. Headlines and the few sentences that follow are often all it takes for a reader to form an opinion before moving to the next story. Since sixty percent of Americans stop after reading headlines, those few words are critically important.

There is no question that these headlines and subheads were calculatingly written for the specific audiences intended to consume them. According to Adam Waytz, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, two psychological concepts contribute to this media tribalism: “motivated reasoning, the idea that we are motivated to believe whatever confirms our opinions,” and “naïve realism, our tendency to believe that our perception of reality is the only accurate view, and that people who disagree with us are necessarily uninformed, irrational, or biased.”

Perhaps employing this psychological reasoning, CNN and Fox News wrote different headlines about this same September 2018 story to engender sympathy and spark curiosity among two entirely different readerships. Fox News serves a loyal and loyally conservative constituency, while CNN readers and viewers tend to lean left. The former is more likely to sympathize with the officer, and the latter with the victim. CNN, for example, describes Botham Shem Jean as an “unarmed man in his own apartment,” whereas Fox News emphasizes that the police officer was “in [the] wrong apartment,” implying that the violence was not intentional. The CNN lede indicates that the officer is white and that Jean is black, hinting at racial bias, while the Fox News subhead does not include this detail. Fox’s take instead focuses on the police officer’s mistake, implying that she would not have shot Jean under normal circumstances. He was her “neighbor”—likely an acquaintance, if not a friend.

These two headlines are but one example of a much broader trend of polarized headlines dominating individual and collective understanding of national issues. This is a trend that, as a result of many people’s comfortable reliance on relatively few sources, can mask itself to the point of being invisible.

While invisible, it is pervasive down to a local level. This is particularly true when national stories come to local papers, as they do every four years to New Hampshire’s Conway Daily Sun. In an interview with The Politic, Margaret McKenzie, the paper’s managing editor, said, “New Hampshire is a swing state, and especially during presidential [races], the whole world comes to our doorstep,” giving her the opportunity to interact with some of the most prominent actors in our national political apparatus. In 2016, those actors included every Republican presidential hopeful other than Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina, with all of whom she sat down for in-person, in-depth conversations.

When asked how, if at all, those conversations influenced her paper’s coverage of the New Hampshire primary, McKenzie said: “I would say that [the conversations] would certainly color… my opinion of [the candidates]. The publisher writes the endorsements for the election, so his… opinion would also color my headline writing.”

Highly-politicized issues lend themselves to politicized headlines, which plays a significant role in how readers understand stories. According to a study conducted by Ullrich Ecker, a psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Western Australia, “a misleading headline hurt[s] a reader’s ability to recall the article’s details,” in reports on the latest news and “impair[s] a reader’s ability to make accurate inferences” when reading opinion pieces. Ecker found that “initial impressions both mattered and were not easily corrected.”

McKenzie, who has worked at myriad other local publications, understands the value of these initial impressions. She said, “you can work…your magic into the lede of a story, the subhead of a story, the caption of a picture, and, of course, the headline to sell a certain point of view. [Working in journalism] has taught me a great deal about the power of words.”

She also remarked that during her tenure at a large daily paper in Boise, Idaho, she worked with a “very conservative” writer who “would sell that conservative line—hook, line, and sinker.” It’s no secret that certain publications have certain leanings: it’s natural. As McKenzie put it, “I do feel as though my bias ultimately will… bleed into my word choice…we all have [biases].”

Biases come not just from reporters or editors, but also from the readers themselves. Jeff Pieters of the Post Bulletin in Rochester, Minnesota directly faced reader biases when his paper covered a story about Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC) football players kneeling for the national anthem in early September. The main article on the incident, headlined “Protests follow RCTC players’ decision to kneel,” sparked quite a controversy in the town. Even though he sourced the article with multiple people on both sides of the issue, Pieters heard from “readers of both political perspectives that they were dissatisfied with the coverage, which really amounted to dissatisfaction with seeing an opposing view presented to them that they found unacceptable.”

Pieters continued, “I think it’s become… really hard for local, general-interest news publications to satisfy the interests and needs of the local readership because some of those very disparate and polarized views that are existing everywhere—those play out here in local news as well.”

The American public’s collective obsession with polarization and the national media has gotten to the point that, in the words of Kurt Hildebrand, editor of the The Record Courier, which serves the 55,000 residents of Minden-Gardnerville and Carson Valley, Nevada: “we’re so bound up in this national media frenzy—and by that I mean not just the national media in a frenzy, but people in a frenzy about the national media—that people… ignore what’s going on down the street from them, until it starts to catch fire and burn up their house.”

Despite readerships’ preoccupation with national polarizing news, however, local publications consistently strive to report on events close to home. Hildebrand said: “my father-in-law, who’s a big MSNBC watcher, and my uncle, who’s a big Fox News watcher, are so fascinated by what’s going on at 50,000 feet that they’re bumping their head on a tree limb because they’re not looking where they’re going. And my job’s to tell them: ‘Hey! Look out for the tree limb!’”

For reporters across the country, “tree limbs” are infrastructure projects, county commissioner races, school buildings, the fires burning down those school buildings, and profiles of the firefighters who put out those fires. In Douglas County, Nevada, Kurt Hildebrand exposed one of those “tree limbs” in 2018: a man had stolen one million dollars worth of tires from the county over the course of the decade.

According to Peter Roper, editor of the The Pueblo Chieftain, a daily paper published in Pueblo, Colorado: “at a local paper, we focus heavily on local politics, local economic issues, local crime—that’s our bread and butter, to cover our community and our region…and sometimes you do relate it to the larger issues that maybe are involved. Maybe it’s a state matter and it might even be a national matter. You try and explain to your reader where the local story fits into the larger picture.”

Often, relating news to the “larger picture” serves as a tactic to engage readers who may otherwise be apathetic about local stories. For example, Elizabeth Meyer, a politics reporter for the The Hawk Eye in Burlington, Iowa, has written about the Trump Administration’s recent tariffs and how they have affected Burlington residents. She told The Politic that while Burlington itself is not a farming community, “everyone in our area or our readership knows a farmer, or you drive two miles and you’re at a farm. I had no shortage of farmers to talk to as to how [the tariffs have] affected them… Manufacturing is a big part of our local economy, so [I talked] to agriculture manufacturers [to see] how poor economies for farmers…affect manufacturers.” By “showing how it’s not necessarily just one group of people that something like the trade dispute affects,” Meyers connected multiple communities within Burlington to the larger picture.

Sometimes, however, local papers have no choice but to turn to national news to engage their readers. But the story is crafted differently for different people in different places, especially when it comes to headlines. To the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the story of Botham Shem Jean looks like: “Dallas police officer fired after manslaughter charge for killing neighbor.” To Long Island and New York City’s Newsday, it looks like: “Dallas Officer Amber Guyger accused in Botham Jeans’ death fired.” Both headlines are accurate, and in that sense, truthful. But each conveys a different truth—one that readers in those areas will respond to, relatively unfazed based on one headline, or viscerally enraged based on the other.

“There’s such a debate right now about whether there’s any media out there that’s objective and fair. And I really believe that there is,” said Vince Bzdek of the Colorado Springs Gazette. “I really believe that there’s objective truth out there, but every paper tries to reflect its community.”

Though the journalists I interviewed come from vastly different locales and serve vastly different readerships, they share a common goal: to seek out that truth for their communities. Local journalists have become “convener[s] of conversation, and it’s…a two-way street,” said Bzdek. They interact with their readership, and they have a pulse on the community issues because they, too, own those issues. As Hildebrand put it, “we’re boots on the ground, literally. We’re in the population—we are as embedded as you can get in the community. There’s no parachuting in and helicoptering out here—you’ve got to live with your decisions.”

Local journalists, like national journalists, are responsible to the people they serve. But for local journalists, those people also happen to be their neighbors, barbers, doctors, and friendly faces at the grocery store. The public holds these reporters accountable. In Bzdek’s words, “the newspaper is a leader in the community and plays a role in making sure issues are brought to the floor… [It] organizes community conversations [about] what is important and what should be important to a community.”

Whether readers engage with their local publications online or drive up to the newsstand every morning to receive their free copy of the Conway Daily Sun, they look to the reporters and editors of those papers to connect them to the issues that affect their daily lives.

Sometimes, that effort rests on localization of a national story, like Jeff Peters in Rochester, Minnesota and Elizabeth Meyer in Burlington, Iowa interviewing farmers and manufacturers about the Trump administration’s recent tariffs. Sometimes that effort takes the form of exposing a decade’s worth of tire theft, as did Kurt Hildebrand in Gardnerville, Nevada. Sometimes it’s about demonstrating the discrepancies between a congressional candidate’s stated record and actual history, as did Margaret McKenzie in Conway, New Hampshire.

Regardless of the story and regardless of the headline, as Jane Curtis of the Fort Dodge Messenger put it, “personally, I am a reach staunch believer in standing on the rock of truth. Sometimes you’re battered for that, but that’s the only thing that doesn’t shift in our world, in our journalism world. We really need to be rooted in truth in everything that we do [and] we try to err on the side of humanity. I think there are times when that’s hard in this business, but that’s our goal. Truth and humanity.”

Truth, humanity, and “Hey! Look out for the tree limb!”