politics

St. Louis Post Dispatch Garners Criticism for “Irresponsible” Headlines and Racially Insensitive Editorials

The St. Louis Post Dispatch, like many print newspapers across the U.S., must confront a more difficult environment as online media diverts customers away from more traditional news sources. Even as legacy organizations like the Post seek to adapt, growth seems nearly out of the question. Rather, of the 25 largest legacy print newspapers across the country, including the Post, average weekday circulation was dropping at nearly double digit rates year over year as of 2010 – when the Post publicized its own circulation woes.

It is within this context of a changing media landscape and a shift to online readership that allows us to begin to make sense of the Post’s newer business model. Like many of its online peers, from legacy news media to online powerhouses like BuzzFeed, there has been a growing importance of a sensational headline. Angèle Christin, a researcher and Assistant Professor of Communication at Stanford found that newsrooms across the country are being transformed by metrics and data to increase advertising revenue, often utilizing “clickbait” to draw interest in to an article.

“As online advertising became increasingly competitive, news organizations did what they had to do to survive in this new environment,”

Angèle Christin
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The Post is doing just that, relying on clickbait to increase digital advertising revenues as a result of a greater number of clicks. Of course, as explained by the BBC, clickbait can also be a harmful journalistic strategy. With sensationalized headlines fueling clicks, and therefore revenue, the actual substance of the article behind the headline may be entirely unlike what readers expected. These headlines can be misleading, incorrect, or downright harmful. And while there is nothing inherently bad about news organizations utilizing more modern techniques to drive revenue, there is something wrong if this strategy puts real lives in danger or dilutes truly important stories.

Before diving too deep into the Post Dispatch, it’s important to recognize just how important local news organizations are. For reducing or exposing corruption, explaining hot-button political issues, or simply building community, local news is very valuable. Local issues can often be the most impactful and tangible issues that people face. Local corruption and potholes affect you every day. The decline of local news has already resulted in tangible harms to democratic norms. Of course, without the veneer of national political partisanship that national news organizations adhere to, they can also carry a greater degree of trust. That trust and responsibility can, however, be ignored or abused.

There are certainly enough examples of major publications using misleading or vague headlines to lure readers in. The Post Dispatch has plenty of company in this practice. In fact, CNN’s homepage on the morning of 4/21 has a COVID story with a headline that could possibly mislead.

Photo of a CNN article with clickbait title

In this example, the article pulls a reader in because vaccines are currently mired in partisan controversy despite the scientific evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are extremely effective and remarkably safe. This article utilizes the public controversy to its benefit, ideally bringing in vaccine skeptics who wish to prove their viewpoint while simultaneously intriguing people who already view vaccines as safe. After all, if you see “concerning” next to “Covid-19 vaccine demand”, it raises some questions. While this headline might be dangerous, perhaps that is only the case on the margins. There are much more dangerous examples and this headline likely does nothing beside reinforce existing beliefs.

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Any action that reduces vaccine trust and subsequent demand puts the public at risk. There have now been over 560,000 deaths resulting from COVID-19 in the United States, with a total of 31 million infections. That puts the death rate from COVID-19 at approximately 1.8%. Of course, many skeptics suggest that a 98% survival rate makes the U.S. response COVID-19 nothing more than an overreaction, but this death rate is simultaneously incredibly high still and not the full story. There are often lingering effects ranging in severity for COVID survivors.

“Nearly one-third of people with COVID-19 had lingering symptoms a median of 6 months after infection onset”

Judy George, MedpageToday

The study also suggested that people who experience these long-lasting symptoms may face ranging effects from fatigue to persistent loss of smell or taste. As the study notes, many of these individuals are young and otherwise healthy, indicating that even those who are at low risk of death still may well face lasting effects.

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This is a long way of suggesting the very clear and obvious notion that the risks of getting COVID-19 on your health are substantially – almost unbelievably – higher than any risks from the vaccine. There are now over 86 million fully vaccinated individuals in the U.S. alone, and there have been some cases where fully vaccinated individuals get sick. The number, as of last week, was 5800 – a miniscule 0.006% of those fully vaccinated. We already knew the vaccines were not 100% effective, but these numbers suggest that they are even MORE effective than the numbers initially suggested. Of those infected post-vaccination, only 74 died. That means that your odds of being infected post-vaccination and dying are 0.00008%.

The Post Dispatch, however, went a full step further than CNN with a headline on April 19 that could fundamentally harm vaccine trust and increase hesitancy. Any person who subsequently choose to not get vaccinated puts their lives at significantly higher risk and damages the public health and potential for herd immunity for the entire region.

This headline is simple and impactful. Writing only that “71 in St. Louis County test positive for COVID-19 after full vaccination” leaves more questions than answers. Most of those questions intentionally would center around vaccine efficacy. The headline capitalizes off of vaccine concern and is the kind of material that can easily be shared as vaccine misinformation. Of course, reading the article or the very small text beneath clarifies that these cases are uncommon, but that’s not the part most people will notice.

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In other words, the Post Dispatch is using vaccine hesitancy as a source of profit through clickbait. They are doing so at a time where vaccine demand is meeting supply, both in the region and more broadly across the United States. The effort needed to push the U.S. and the St. Louis area toward herd immunity will be gargantuan, and it will require institutional stakeholders and media doing the opposite of fear mongering for profit. If the Post Dispatch had altered its headline to include a note about vaccine safety or the unlikely chance of “breakthrough cases”, then at least it could have been neutral.

Users on social media were quick to call this headline “irresponsible”, noting just how difficult it has been to coordinate a coherent public health response with a skeptical public. Giving material to conspiracy theorists who do not trust vaccines is certainly not helpful for beneficial for anything but their bottom line. But, as should be expected, evoking anger and anxiety leads to more clicks.

While there is certainly an argument to be made about the unhealthy connection between news media, particularly local news, and capitalism, that is not the point of this article even as it should still be explored. While local news can be instrumental for the health of a region through exposing corruption and informing the public, staff writers need to make enough to support themselves and the infrastructure of a print-media organization doesn’t come cheap either. Even here at Missouri-Metro, we use ads to pay for the site infrastructure. You’ve probably seen a few in this article alone.

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Of course, while we should be rooting for the success of the Post Dispatch and hoping for its staff to shape a positive presence in the region, neither their headline writers, editors, or Editorial Board seem particularly interested in doing so.

On the heels of Mayor Jones’ victory on April 6, a dramatic electoral shift we covered here, the Editorial Board at the St. Louis Post Dispatch quickly released a number of articles that showcased some extreme racial insensitivities and cognitive distortions.

The first dropped on April 8th, titled “Editorial: New Mayor, same jail crisis. Someone needs to convey a sense of urgency.” This article, as you probably noticed, similarly uses clickbait to lead the reader to incorrect conclusions. Of Course, Mayor Jones would not even be inaugurated for another 12 days and was still building her transition team following an electoral victory just 2 days prior. The headline is written to direct the reader to the conclusion that Mayor Jones had already been slacking on her job. It does not use the correct term for her position, which at the time was simply Mayor-Elect, not the actual St. Louis Mayor.

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While the article brings up valid concerns about how the city must address its jail crisis, it does so first by tearing down the city’s first Black woman Mayor 12 days before she’d even hold the role. The Editorial Board goes on to suggest that Mayor-Elect Jones’ plan to close the “workhouse” jail will just make the current situation worse at the Downtown jail.

That may or may not be true, but the article suggests that then Mayor-Elect Jones lacked a sense of “urgency” on the matter, using a loaded term that suggests a lack of preparedness or care. Where they could possibly reach that outcome is unclear given that Jones had released a statement about the Community Justice Center uprising the very next day.

In her statement, she addresses the very concerns noted about locks and conditions that the Editorial Board unceremoniously roasts her for not considering. They also give no airtime to the reason why Jones and other city progressives are looking to close the “workhouse” jail, simply chocking it up to adopting “the mantra of progressive activists”. However, this position completely talks down the importance of the various reasons progressives and others are seeking changes to the city’s jail and criminal justice systems. The average inmate at the Community Justice Center spends 344 days behind bars before their trial. The city’s other jail, known as the “workhouse” has an international reputation as a “modern-day debtors’ prison” full of black mold and rats.

Simply ignoring these horrendous conditions that predominantly impact the Black community in St. Louis, while writing off the preparedness and care for the issue of the city’s first Black Mayor, is not a good luck. 90% of those imprisoned at the workhouse are Black, and evidently their conditions are of little importance to the Editorial Board.

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In another April 8th piece, titled “Editorial: Jones must employ deft diplomacy to build bridges with those she has attacked”, the Editorial Board nullifies Jones’ regional relationships, diplomatic capability, and the validity of her entire campaign and the platform she ran on. Ignoring that the Post Dispatch Editorial Board endorsed her opponent, Cara Spencer, who ran on a fairly similar progressive platform, these claims should be validated if they bother to make them.

In one example of Jones’ supposedly having a tenuous relationship of those she must work with, the Editorial Board bring up Police Union head Jeff Roorda. Jones did in fact say that Roorda would not have a seat at her table, but Spencer also called for the very same thing. The Board calls this an example of Jones’ “vengeful tendencies”, but if that was the case, why is the same not applied to her opponents or most progressive St. Louis politicians? Moreover, why use Roorda at all when he lobbed insults at Jones like “laziest-legislator-of-all-time”, “cop-hater” and “race-baiter”. Despite his herculean efforts to appose police reforms, his own actions get no airtime with the Post Dispatch Editorial Board in this piece.

If the Editorial Board took the time to write a whole piece about her broken relationships, then there must be other examples, right? The only others mentioned are the Board of Aldermen, Board of Estimate and Apportionment, and the city bureaucracy itself. Perhaps there is some distrust between the Aldermen and the Mayor as that usually tends to be the case. It is not as though Mayor Krewson always got along with the legislative body. In fact Krewson was steadfastly in favor of Board reduction, a position that did not gain much favor with many Aldermen. Moreover, she had a tenuous relationship with the more progressive members of the legislative body.

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So where does Mayor Jones stand with these important relationships? Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed promised to endorse Jones if he did not proceed to the runoff, as would end up being the case. She already has his support, but what about the rest of the Board? With the success of the #FlipTheBoard and the newly dominant progressive majority on the Board, Jones has a rare opportunity to make progress on her progressive agenda. Jones had a full 14 current members endorse her run, versus just 4 for Spencer.

On the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, made up of just 3 elected officials including the Mayor, Board of Aldermen President, and Comptroller, Jones has similarly strong relationships. With Reed’s former endorsement and a strong statement of support by Comptroller Green, there seems to be far less strife than the Editorial Board would suggest.

With little real support for their strangely mean-spirited claims of poor diplomacy and relationships, the Board ends their piece with claims that Jones cannot be trusted with the $500 million windfall coming from the Federal Government and that her victory is anything but a mandate. They suggest that the money is not “solely hers to spend as she likes”, as though Jones had ever suggested that it would be. Rather, she has adopted a community input plan for the funds alongside a promise to “work with the Board of Estimate and Apportionment and Board of Aldermen to appropriate stimulus funds”.

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The Editorial Board falls victim to stereotypes about Black people that are still woefully common to see today. It’s a common stereotype that Black Americans just don’t know how to manage their money, or that they cannot be trusted with their finances. There is a rather good explanation on this stereotype here that I recommend you take a few minutes to read. Regardless, it is evident that the Post Dispatch Editorial Board simply does not trust Jones to uphold her responsibility even though the voters widely adopted her as their new Mayor. Even that victory is downplayed, with her majority 52% support not counting as mandate to the Editorial Board.

We’ve covered just how important the role of local media can be for cities. Here in St. Louis, the responsibility is even greater. With historic levels of violence, the COVID-19 pandemic, a State Government that seems intent on neutering big city agendas, and politicians who need to be held accountable, there is certainly enough material. Yet, instead of utilizing the very real issues responsibly, the Post Dispatch utilizes racial tropes and stereotypes to further false narratives. They also use fear mongering and misdirection through clickbait, influencing potentially deadly behaviors and sowing distrust in the most important public health battle of our generation.

Where did the Post Dispatch take this turn toward racism and irresponsibility? That will be important to explore, and even more important will be the necessity of resolving these issues to resume and correct its important role in our society. For now, it is incumbent on readers to beware of its recent tendencies and to demand better from what can and should be one of our greatest assets.

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2 comments

  1. I’ve only just starting paying for my news but only have national subscriptions so far. I keep hearing that they’re doing alright while the local news sources are struggling. Do you have a paid for your news and what local news sources can you suggest?

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    1. I have certainly heard local news is struggling too, unfortunately. My guess is that it makes less ethical clickbait quite a bit harder to avoid.

      I really like SLPR, though. I think they do a great job for the most part. My goal is to fill some of the void on this platform but as one person wirh limited time, it is difficult. In the meantime I’m grateful that the limited ad revenue about breaks even with the site maintenance costs!

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