An exploration of the physical frontiers that define race in America

Huffington Post’s sensationalized headlines undermine writers’ attempts at objectivity

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The Huffington Post

The front page of The Huffington Post (Photo Credit: Drew Geraets via Creative Commons License)

For this post, I will be straying away slightly from my typical discussion of race and space to focus on the roles of media in propagating that discourse.

In particular, I have found that The Huffington Post hosts some of the most comprehensive commentary on issues of race and space across the spectrum of American media. The site is home to a variety of affinity sections, including ‘Black Voices‘ and ‘Latino Voices‘, which offer news and op/ed articles that come from and cater to particular minority groups. The way these sites curate content make them great for finding articles that pertain to issues of race and space.

The Huffington Post was first created with a liberal audience in mind, intended as the left-leaning answer to the Drudge Report, a conservative news-and-commentary site. Among the influences that the Drudge Report had on The Huffington Post is the use of large-print, sensationalized headlines, which are meant to take news stories and frame them for the intended audience.

So, where The New York Times might strive to serve you a headline that tells you the basic, essential information you are looking for from a news article, a Huffington Post headline is intended to elicit some sort of reaction from you, depending on your political leanings. The headline below is a great example.

Screenshot of The Huffington Post's Latino Voices section front page (March 10, 2013, 6:40 PM)

Screenshot of The Huffington Post’s Latino Voices section front page (March 10, 2013, 6:40 PM)

The headline in the above screen capture of The Huffington Post’s ‘Latino Voices’ section is clearly trying to make a statement. The words “FLIP-FLOP” are plastered across an image of a particularly sour-looking Jeb Bush, and the sub-head reads: “Jeb Bush Defends Himself.”

Looking at the headline, one could reasonably assume that the associated article is criticizing Bush in some way, perhaps in relation to the new book he released this past week. Readers with more knowledge about the controversy surrounding the book, in which Bush writes that undocumented immigrants should not be given pathways to citizenship, might assume that the criticism would be related to changes in Bush’s anti-immigration stance. This is not an unreasonable assumption, particularly given that the ‘Latino Voices’ component of The Huffington Post addresses the Latino community, for whom immigration is an important issue. This assumption might also come from a reader’s perception of The Huffington Post as a left-leaning publication.

Now, none of the above assumptions are inherently wrong or bad. We have reached a point in the evolution of journalism where writing from a position of opinion for a particular audience can be very effective. This so-called ‘advocacy journalism‘ is not bad – it’s just different; different relative to traditional notions of journalism, which preach objectivity and reporting the ‘truth’. The Huffington Post is a shining example of the type of impact and reach that ‘advocacy journalism’ can have.

What is troubling about the “FLIP-FLOP” headline in the image above, however, is that it the article it links to is not at all what you would expect it to be. It is not a scathing review of Jeb Bush’s latest book, or an indictment of his tendency to change immigration platforms. It is, instead, a balanced news article that recaps Bush’s appearances on a variety of talk shows to promote his book. It states the criticism levied at Bush’s apparent immigration policy flip-flop, but then presents a block quote from Bush addressing that criticism. It presents criticism of Bush from within his own political party, and then addresses that criticism with another quote from Bush. The article concludes like any ‘inverted pyramid‘ news article would, providing general information about Bush and his political career.

Furthermore, the article is not written by a left-wing political pundit or a supporter of liberal immigration reform. It is written by Jennifer Bendery who, before working at The Huffington Post, wrote for CQ Roll Call and Gallery Watch – legislative monitoring sites that report internal congressional news.

Let’s backtrack for a second: I went to The Huffington Post’s site, knowing that it was created with a liberal audience in mind. I then went to the ‘Latino Voices’ section, which I know was created to deliver news and commentary to a Latino audience. There, on the front page, I saw an image of angry-looking Jeb Bush with a massive “FLIP-FLOP” emblazoned over his head. But when I clicked on the headline, I landed upon a news article written in the tradition of The New York Times?

Listen, I am a full supporter of ‘advocacy journalism’, blogs that push op/ed content, and news aggregators. There is a clear demand for these types of services, and journalists, above all else, have a duty to serve the people. But what I am not okay with is the mischaracterization of the journalistic work I am consuming. If I am getting a sensationalized headline, I don’t want to be redirected to the Associated Press. If I am getting a straight-news headline, I don’t want to be reading highly politicized drivel.

Some politicians make a living trying to package themselves as something they are not. I’ve mostly given up on them, but I still think that journalistic organizations have a moral commitment to avoid doing the same.


One thought on “Huffington Post’s sensationalized headlines undermine writers’ attempts at objectivity

  1. Well-written. Thank you for letting me know.

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