When I was a child, my father warned me to never repeat what I read as a headline in the grocery store checkout line. He told me about tabloids, how they took a smidgen of truth and manipulated it to form a shocking headline attached to a misleading story in order to sell more magazines. The same thing is happening today but for much more nefarious reasons.
In the smartphone-driven, social media enhanced world of modern digital propaganda, the tabloids are alive and well. The problem is that the vast majority of online publications, including journalistic stalwarts like the New York Times and the Washington Post, have invoked tabloid principles in order to sell something. The difference is that they’re not selling magazines. They’re selling ideas. Unfortunately, the ideas are driven by agendas that can do much more harm than grocery store checkout headlines about aliens replacing some celebrity’s brain.
Headlines are extremely powerful. The attention span of western culture in general and Americans in particular has dropped when it comes to digesting the news. We see so much information and there’s so much more to get that we often relegate our fact-finding the a headline and a snippet. In general, people are “reading” more articles but spending much less time doing it. This means that they’re not really reading the articles. They’re just getting a taste of it and forming their opinions accordingly.
A recent example of this comes from Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post. Here’s the headline.
How gun deaths became as common as traffic deaths: https://t.co/bsk6Ixvovv
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) December 20, 2015
I can already hear it. There are people across the country and around the world who are talking to a relative, friend, or coworker sharing this fact. Some of them are noting that it came from a reliable source. After all, the Washington Post or other old school liberal rags would never mislead, let alone lie. right?
Welcome to tabloid journalism 2016. You may not have bought a magazine. You probably didn’t even click to the story to give them a penny of ad revenue. You did, however, see the Tweet, Facebook post, or the headline itself on the website and added it to your list of facts that support your position on gun control. You were sold.
Here’s the reality of the story. Since 1994, gun homicides have dropped 49% in the United States. Motor vehicle deaths have dropped faster which is why the number of deaths from motor vehicles is now about equal to the number of deaths from guns. Unfortunately, that’s not how the headline reads. That’s not what people will think. They will read the headline and assume that gun deaths have increased to the level of motor vehicle deaths.
That’s exactly what they want you to think.
Forget about safety improvements in vehicles being the reason for the statistical tie. That doesn’t make for a juicy headline. More importantly, it doesn’t achieve the goals of their agenda.
This isn’t just a liberal thing. Conservative publications do the same thing. Heck, we do the same thing here. Anyone who claims that their publication does not engage in this sort of activity is either unfortunately misinformed or willfully glib. One scan through the Drudge Report will show you that agendas are at work even in the news aggregation systems.
That’s the power of the digital age. Agendas aren’t pushed by stories. They’re pushed by headlines. As the election approaches, don’t sacrifice the truth for the sake of someone’s agenda.