Reading The Headline Is Not Enough

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Gone are the days when the majority of the population took their coffee with cream, two sugars and the morning newspaper. While I still do exactly that, minus the cream and sugar, most Americans now choose to gather their news via social media. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, 67% of Americans report getting at least some of their news on social media. These 280 character Tweets and headlines designed to tell a story in 10 words or less, can be worthwhile, but they can also be dangerous. While many of these headlines, and their accompanying articles, make the rounds on social media, the devastating reality is that too few of us ever bother to click the link to get the full story.

If you want to know why people are so prone to fly off the handle these days, throwing nuance and deeper truth to the wind, look no further than a provocative headline crafted to trigger an emotional response.

Take a seat for a little lesson in journalism theory. Journalism is meant to impartially share facts while letting the subjects share their sides of the story via quotes. Columns and opinion articles are where feelings and views can be shared. But there is a noticeable delineation between the two that is meant to protect readers and allow them to make up their own minds about particular situations. 

Unfortunately, while a journalist or news organization doesn't (generally) outright tell us how to feel about a particular topic, they are learning ways to manipulate us into reacting in the way they see fit. The major news corporations do it. The smaller, independent organizations do it. Your favorite faith-based bloggers do it. It seems that no matter where we turn, a fishing hook in the form of the most heart-wrenching headline is dangling, waiting to snag us right in the emotions.

And I know this may not be news to anyone, but somehow we endlessly fall victim to it, no matter how aware of it we are. And it doesn't just come in the form of blatantly stated opinions or outright lies.The surest way to become someone else's social and political pawn is to read nothing but a headline and allow it to form our ideas and beliefs. If we don't dig deeper and look closer we might not only miss the details; we might lose the truth entirely. 

On Feb. 8, CNN wrote a story about a man who was deported. They shared a short description of the article and an image on their Twitter account. 


What do you see here? A man leaving behind his elderly relative to return to a country he doesn't call home? Wait, is that person in the wheelchair the one being deported?! It can't be! How disgusting! What monster would do such a thing! Why am I crying? 

And Twitter users responded in kind with an outcry, asking "what if this was your grandfather?" and if there was a place people could donate clothes or money to the woman depicted. While conversations over the current administration raged and questions of justice and empathy flew freely, it seemed that most of the furious commenters had come away with fully formed opinions without even reading the article.

The first five paragraphs of the article shared what was actually happening in this photograph. 

"With nothing but the clothes on his back and less than $300 in his pocket, Amer Adi was put on a plane and deported to Jordan, the country he left 39 years ago to pursue his American dream. 
"His 94-year-old mother sat in a wheelchair at the arrivals gate, overcome with emotion as she waited for Adi. She hadn't seen him in 20 years. 
"As he walked out, his siblings, nephews and nieces broke out in cheers. But they were soon in tears.
"Adi fell to his knees, a broken man in his mother's arms. 
"'I have mixed feelings, very mixed feelings. I'm so happy, so glad to be here, my home, to see my mother, my brother, my family, my friends, that makes me proud and happy," Adi told CNN at the airport.'"

A photograph of a joyful reunion between mother and son was irresponsibly used to stir up anger. And it seemed that nobody in the Twitter conversation had noticed.

When I saw that image and Tweet for the first time, I was disgusted and outraged. I was furious about what I believed had been done. But moments later, after a click and 10 seconds of reading, I was furious about what I had nearly been led to believe - had nearly allowed myself to believe - based on insufficient information. And what upset me most wasn't the questionable ethics of the situation or the way it makes journalists look bad. It was the way that Twitter poster had used my love for others against me, and that they had done the same to many, many others who had no idea that they had just been misled. 

This isn't about the rights and wrongs of deportation, nor is it about the current politics in Washington. This is about a pressing, urgent need on our part to stop allowing ourselves to be misdirected. My extreme empathy can be a source of strength for me, but it can also open me up to emotional manipulation. This incident was a striking reminder that there is always more to the story than can be shared in a headline or image and that Twitter can be used equally for good or evil. 

There is a conversation to be had here about the current state of immigration, but when misleading content is used to trick unsuspecting readers, the snarling "fake news" monster grows stronger, and the waters are further muddied. We as consumers have to be better, and we have to expect better from those disseminating the information.