The inordinate power of a sensational headline

Photo by Casey Gomez, Student Publications

It’s easy for me to get upset by the things I see in the news. I’m too sensitive, too affected by the terrible things that happen to regular old people, people just like me. A great quality in a news editor, right?

The world is a scary place, and distressing things happen all the time. However, recent events on our own campus have caused me to reconsider the impact that headlines have on shaping our opinions and emotions.

When I was reading the national media coverage detailing the death of Scout Schultz, I was astounded by the widely varying and sometimes sensationalist headlines of many of the

Some were misleading if taken out of context: “Protests Erupt After Tech Police Kill Pride Leader.”  Some simply expressed an outright opinion: “Cop ‘overreacted’ in shooting death of Georgia Tech student: lawyer.” Still others actually included false information: “Videos show police officer fatally shooting transgender Georgia Tech student.”

My eyes were very quickly opened to the fact that not every paper is as strict about editorializing or introducing their own take on what should be an unbiased report of an extremely important and serious occurrence.

Logically, I understand why news outlets dramatize events such as the death of Scout Schultz. Scandal, crime, politics and destruction are terrific at generating drama and fear. Fear sells papers.

However, attention-grabbing headlines of an already dramatic event twist attention away from reporting the facts and instead advance a political agenda or make a tangential point.

It is an essential, sometimes-forgotten core belief of journalism that readers should be permitted to gather facts and unbiased information in order to make their own informed decisions about what they should believe.

After that point, it is out of the hands of the journalists; but before, it is a journalist’s solemn responsibility to provide these facts.

I understand that we live in a digital age, where every click on an article is another dollar in the pockets of investors.

The problem is that stories such as the one of Schultz are extremely complicated. They involve countless invested parties, various perspectives that must be heard and dozens of details that compete to be included, each of which could have an influence on how the story is received by readers. That quantity of complex information is nearly impossible to include in a single article, much less five to eight words emblazoned on top of
a page.

The solution, which has become all the more clear in recent days, is not to believe everything you read in a headline without educating yourself first. Click the article. Open the paper. Read as much as you can from opposing points of view and, more importantly, from people who were directly involved in the situation.

We live in an age where the majority of information is readily available at any moment we should want it. This is potentially dangerous in the hands of those who strive to perpetuate fear, but every single reader has the power to combat it. The best thing that we can do is to fight fear with knowledge.