Headlines and Public Perception of Hate Crimes

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

Headlines and Public Perception of Hate Crimes

Makenzie Mercer

In a December 2019 class activity, students with the Prosecution Project were responsible for rummaging through our source files to ensure that the content was relevant, the files were accurately labeled to coincide with a case in our database, and that they were sorted into easily accessible folders. During this task, I read through many news articles ranging in date from the start of the project in 1990 to now. I was struck by how drastically the rhetoric used by mainstream media has evolved– especially in headlines.

A 1994 headline from The New York Times read “Grand Jury Indicts Suspect on 93 Counts in Attack That Killed 6 on Long Island Rail Road.” This article was about mass-murdered Colin Ferguson, who shot and killed 6 people while injuring 19 more in a racist rage in December of 1993. After reading this very to-the-point and lackluster headline, I thought of some of the headlines I’ve seen regarding more recent acts of violence. Compare the 1994 headline to this 2019 headline from the same news outlet, The New York Times:

“Man indicted for hate crime and murder in grisly New York hammer attack.”

This article was about Arthur Martunovich, who used a hammer to kill three Asian men at a Chinese restaurant in January. To me, the inclusion of “hate crime” and the strong use of an adjective like “grisly” in this headline, made me assume that the details of the article would be far more extreme than the details in the 1994 article. However, when you compare the facts of each of the cases– while both horrendous and tragic– the 1994 crime actually resulted in higher death and injury tolls.

I understand that this shift in reporting may largely be due to the recent uptick in hate crimes, as discussed in my previous blog entry. The more hate crimes that occur, the more eager the media is going to be to cover them in a way that attracts attention– this makes sense. I also know that “hate crime” is a relatively new label, so it is no shocker that it was not included in the 1994 headline. However, I cannot help but wonder if there are other factors at play. The first that comes to mind is the role of technology. Given that print media is now a struggling industry and so much of the news cycle is accessed electronically, it is no doubt that reporters must choose their words carefully when drafting headlines. If the headline does not appear tragic enough or exciting enough at first glance, then reporters will not successfully attract the attention of their consumers.

This idea of “click-bait” is so prominent in today’s reporting that it can be challenging to understand the true contents of the article without reading it in its entirety. One could argue that this is a good thing– that media consumers should be reading the news in its entirety. Others could argue that, with so much news to consume, it is not realistic to expect every article to be read in its entirety– that there is value in straightforward headlines that allow for easy-reads to inform the public. In the case of hate crime reporting, I do not necessarily know which approach is best. With hate crimes being a growing issue in our country, it is crucial that the public have quick, easy, and oftentimes unavoidable access to the news. However, it is also crucial that their information be thorough and accurate.

My analysis is certainly subjective. It is quite possible that others perceive this shift in headlines differently or even find it inconsequential, but it was enough to pique my interest as I sorted through tPP’s files. I am curious to see not only how headlines continue to evolve, but also if there are related ramifications in how the public perceives the rising issue of hate crimes.

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