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The subtext of headlines and the news we are fed

<h6>“<strong>Newspapers B&amp;W</strong>” by Jon S / &nbsp;<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/62693815@N03/6277209256" target="_self"><strong>CC BY 2.0</strong></a></h6>
Newspapers B&W” by Jon S /  CC BY 2.0

As an Apple News notification popped up on my phone last week that the Senate passed a bipartisan bill to make daylight savings permanent, I immediately chuckled. While this is without a doubt a serious piece of legislation that will impact Americans’ lives, my amusement was more directed towards the use of the word “bipartisan,” its role in making this newsworthy information, and the headline in the context of a tense news cycle. Reflecting upon what I found off-putting about this article helped illuminate for me ways in which we can promote respectful and informative journalism, which helps the public become educated about world events while remaining sensitive about the catastrophic nature of many newsworthy stories. 

During a week when most news headlines revolved around the war in Ukraine, changing how we set our clocks felt somewhat insignificant. Sure, it will impact our days during the winter, making it so that for the approximately 16 weeks when the sun used to set between 4 and 5 p.m., the sun will now set between 5 and 6 p.m. And yes, this could have larger ripple effects, such as impacts on seasonal depression or potentially attracting more customers to storefronts as daylight hours extend further into the evening. In these regards the legislation was not unimportant, yet the headline still seemed to stick out like a sore thumb as arguably a fluff piece among a slew of more serious news developments regarding the war in Ukraine or a historic Supreme Court Justice nomination.

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However, do these more serious pieces of news make the recounting of a less weighty subject unworthy of being in the news? While there is no right answer to this question, I’m inclined to say no. There is not a need to silence ourselves amidst others’ hardship, but instead we must tread carefully, being wary of how we craft headlines and where we place them. Perhaps my reaction was more about the juxtaposition of the news notifications that came through my phone that day rather than the very newsworthiness of the bill itself.

Yet I also took issue with the phrasing of this news, with the headline hailing the bill as ‘bipartisan.’ In our current political climate, the word ‘bipartisan’ signals an anomalous type of collaboration between Republicans and Democrats. This type of collaboration has become so unusual in our incredibly divided Congress that when it does happen, even in areas as apolitical as our clock settings, it makes headlines. While I value cooperation between the two parties, I am not sure that this particular type of collaboration merits praise for its bipartisan nature; rather, it would seem somewhat ridiculous if Congress proved so oppositional that even our clock settings became a matter that fell along political lines. The more that we praise congressional representatives for working together on apolitical issues that should be fertile grounds for collaboration, the more we reinforce the expectation that collaboration in Congress should be exceedingly rare and difficult. Perhaps when taking note of the bipartisan nature of legislation, we should also take note of the collaborative efforts that led to the passing of the legislation. Going beyond simply acknowledging the noteworthy teamwork when it does take place in Congress so that we can learn from these remarkable feats could help make these efforts more common.

I do not intend to blame Apple News for pushing this notification, nor do I intend to fault news sources for writing about a diverse range of issues — some incredibly serious and others less so. Rather, I hope that this column serves as a call for us, readers and writers, to be cognizant of how we frame things: giving praise where it is due, crafting headlines with care, and ultimately circulating news in a respectful manner, since paying attention to the media we consume and how we consume it bears great consequences on our political engagement. 

Not only is it important for us to stay informed about current events, but how we discuss those events matters, too; the words we use to craft a particular narrative and inherently put a spin on any story we tell. Paying attention to how we share news or how news is shared with us, even within the Princeton community, is a crucial duty that all of us hold as global citizens. 

Ava Milberg is a sophomore from New York City. She can be reached at amilberg@princeton.edu. 

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