When you opened this page, what words did you read first? Based on centuries (literally) of studying reading habits, your eyes went straight for the headline: “Your trust, our reputation sacrificed for dollars.”
Headlines matter. They matter even more than you realize, but don’t take my word for it. Here’s an excerpt from an excellent article in The New Yorker:
“… Everyone knows that a headline determines how many people will read a piece, particularly in this era of social media,” wrote Maria Konnikova. “But, more interesting, a headline changes the way people read an article and the way they remember it… By drawing attention to certain details or facts, a headline can affect what existing knowledge is activated in your head. By its choice of phrasing, a headline can influence your mindset as you read so that you later recall details that coincide with what you were expecting.”
If I could have said it better, I wouldn’t have quoted a writer from New York, but the point is brilliantly made. Keep that in perspective as I tell you what happened last week.
Each day, I receive a series of news alerts about this area of Houston. News stories about crimes and new restaurants (often one in the same) are delivered to my email address. If there’s a news source writing about the Heights or Oak Forest or Garden Oaks or any of our other neighborhoods, I have an alert to let me know.
Last week, I received one of these alerts and was surprised to find that, on Aug. 9, a Chinese news agency wrote about the Heights. Specifically, they published a story about White Linen Nights, one of the shining examples of how our community is one of the coolest places you can live.
There’s not another neighborhood in Houston that knows how to bring out the most diverse, interesting and lively crowds in the city quite like the Heights, and it’s a charm of which we’re all proud.
So you can understand how taken aback I was at the headline that ran on a Chinese website about one of our prized events:
“People enjoy ‘white night’ in Houston in south U.S.”
If you were to only read that headline, what would you expect to see in the story? That’s a rhetorical question. You’d expect to read about a bunch of white people in the South having an event only for white people. The headline, published on Xinhaunet.com, doesn’t just play on the “white night” words; they make sure you know this happened in the south, i.e., the South – the one still full of plantations and slave quarters and cotton fields?
Just so you know, Xinhaunet happens to be the official news agency of China, and it turns out they actually had reporters at White LINEN Night on Aug. 5.
“Thousands of Houstonians attended the 11th Annual White Linen Night in Houston Heights in South U.S., a community in northwest-central Houston this past weekend,” the story began.
OK, that’s a terribly written sentence, but at least it’s accurate. The next sentence said, “People gathered for live music, art displays, shopping specials and enjoyed a lively atmosphere.”
Still no mention of cross burnings or pointed hats. In fact, the entire article gets it right, even down to the interview they did with an artist named David Stein, “who specializes in resin paintings,” the article said.
I contacted Stein and, sure enough, he said he was interviewed by Xinhuanet. Obviously, he did not know they were going to plaster a headline across the top that screamed of a racist activity happening in the south.
Maybe we should concede the Chinese news agency some slack, even though they have 170 news bureaus across the world. If this weren’t such a perfect example of the complete dysfunction of media, we could just give it a pass.
But this is everywhere. This is what nearly every form of media has become.
Publications on the right (both in print and online) will take the worst of a story and make it a headline. When a bombing happens, you’re hard pressed not to find the words “Muslim Extremists” in the headline. Because “terrorists” isn’t a terrifying enough word.
When the idiots in Charlottesville, Va., took to the streets to protect a statue last weekend and fatal riots ensued, we were blasted with the headlines of “Alt Right” this and that. These were Nazis. These were about as far from being associated with conservatives in this country as you could imagine, yet at one point in the day following this tragedy, USA Today filled its website with the words “Alt Right” in four different headlines.
When right-leaning publications push “Muslim extremists,” they are trying to engrain “Muslim” in your mind. When left-leaning publications push “Alt Right,” they want you to associate the evil with the right, the conservatives in this country.
It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you stand, this feeding of our prejudice lurks everywhere. And this isn’t by accident. Media today are in such a race for your eyeballs that they have made the conscious decision to sacrifice your trust and their reputation to sell more advertising.
The Chinese news agency did it at the expense of the Heights last week, but you can open any news source today and you’re likely to find this same deceit all over the information we once could trust.
And this, once again, is why I love our role as the provider of local news. It may be the last place readers can come without fear of tricks, race baiting and a complete disrespect for you.