A free press is a sacred institution. In today’s political and social climates, independent media freely reporting on current events is one of the dwindling defenses protecting our democracy. We have seen many examples of this first amendment right is under attack. For years the Trump administration has been undermining the media’s credibility, even saying that they are “the enemy of the American people.” While it is crucial that we, the citizenry, fight to protect free media, we must constantly evaluate the media we consume through a critical lens.
The percentage of people who read print newspapers continues to decline. According to a 2012 Pew Research study, 47 percent of people said they read a print newspaper in 2000, but in 2012 that number halved to just 23 percent. We can expect that in 2020, that number has dropped even lower. According to Pew, a growing percentage of people now read the news from their electronic (usually mobile) devices. Social media has also increasingly become a source of news, up from 7 percent in 2010 to 20 percent in 2012 and expectedly even higher now.
Throughout the day, people receive news notifications on their laptops and smartphones. The banner pops across the screen displaying the headline and, more often than not, people skim over the headline and dismiss the notification. On social media, the news is delivered in the most concise format possible in an attempt to grab the readers’ attention before they continue scrolling down their feed. When people repost articles or news clips, it’s often only the headline that is visible. These media consumers aren’t sitting down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and reading the whole article, they are digesting the usually less than ten-word headline and treating it as fact.
So why does it this matter if readers stop at the headline? Not only because people are less informed, but also because people aren’t reading the article itself and therefore don’t have the opportunity to decide for themselves if it is credible or not. Although there are inherent concerns with a less-informed public that doesn’t question its media, not reading full articles is even more dangerous because media headlines are full of racial bias.
Newspapers and magazines often treat violent white offenders better than innocent black people, which manifests in many different ways. A white male teenager who shot and killed two people is referred to in The Washington Post as a “seventeen-year-old” but call an eighteen-year-old boy shot and killed by Washington D.C. police a “young black man.” The pictures accompanying white offenders show them smiling with their families, while the photos accompanying a headline about a black victim of police violence depicts the victim as a criminal. White offenders are complex individuals with histories of mental health issues, while black victims are criminals and thugs.
Artist and journalist Alexandra Bell has been rewriting racist headlines and presenting them alongside the original for years. In 2016, Bell came across a 2014 Times front-page story covering the murder of Mike Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. The Times ran the story with the headline “Two Lives at a Crossroads in Ferguson”, with parallel profiles of Brown and Wilson. Bell revised the front page with the headlines “Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown” and “A Teenager with Promise.” She replaced the previous photo of Brown with his high school senior photo. Bell has adjusted articles and headlines from dozens of different papers and although it is unclear how the Times responded to her original critique the New Yorker magazine did a profile on Bell’s work.
“What you give space to and what you allow people to see says a lot,” Bell explained in a video highlighting her counternarrative project. Print media isn’t immune to the institutional and social racism that is a pillar of America. In an increasingly fast-paced world full of headlines about racial violence, it is more important than ever to read the media we consume through a critical lens and ask ourselves if what we’re reading is really accurate or just thinly veiled racist propaganda.