Removing 'undocumented' from headline on Tibbetts story sows readers' distrust

Removing 'undocumented' from headline on Tibbetts story sows readers' distrust
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The New York Times "stealth-edited" a headline on an undocumented immigrant who is charged with murdering 20-year-old Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts. 

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And this was no minor edit, according to NewsDiffs, which tracks changes in online news articles over time, and Editing TheGrayLady, which does the same on Twitter. Because, by removing one very key word, it allowed the paper to attack President TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE while misleading its readers.

Here is the original headline: “Body Believed to Be That of Mollie Tibbetts, Iowa College Student, Is Found."

As the story developed, the focus turned to Trump. Now here’s a modified headline following the arrest of a suspect: “Trump Seizes on Killing of College Student, After Undocumented Immigrant’s Arrest." 

The headline was modified yet again: “After an Immigrant’s Arrest, Trump Seizes on Killing of Mollie Tibbetts, Iowa Student." 


Trump “seizes" — now there’s an interesting word choice. And where did that word "undocumented" run off to in the second headline?

If you do what most Americans do when getting their news — by scrolling through headlines and absorbing one-sentence blurbs before moving on to the next story — you might be led to believe that the president was "seizing" on a perfectly legal American citizen being accused of murdering another perfectly legal American citizen, in order for him to push a policy of halting illegal immigration through improved border security and enforcing laws on the books. You know, the policies he’s been pushing since June 2015, when he announced his candidacy. 

It's obvious that stealth-editing, especially in headlines, only sows readers' distrust and suspicion. And, in the end, all the readers or viewers want is transparency from the paper or TV-news channel from which they get their information — particularly in cases like the Mollie Tibbetts tragedy in which so many are emotionally invested, just as they were in the case of Kate Steinle, murdered by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco who had been deported from the U.S. five times. 

Some online headlines and stories get changed on a regular basis regardless of publication. One editor may have a different opinion of what works, and a change is made. That's fine. But when an alteration changes the entire tenor and focus of the story, that's when readers feel misled. Because not only is it a whole bowl of wrong to change anything significant without alerting readers, but because the journalistic offense here, taking out the word "undocumented," looks so intentionally deceptive. 

In this case, the motivation for blurring or erasing the line between "legal" and "illegal," in the view of any objective observer, seems to be to push a narrative that Trump harbors resentment against all immigrants and wants them all deported or prevented from entering the country.

The New York Times was one of more than 350 newspapers that took part in last week's editorials from across the country, imploring the public to trust them in the name of a free and fair press. 

"Criticizing the news media — for underplaying or overplaying stories, for getting something wrong — is entirely right," its Aug. 15 editorial read. "News reporters and editors are human, and make mistakes. Correcting them is core to our job. But insisting that truths you don’t like are 'fake news' is dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy. And calling journalists the 'enemy of the people' is dangerous, period."

Something else that could be considered dangerous is attempting to pull what the Times apparently did on Wednesday, via stealth-editing and misleading narratives, in order to push its own opinions beyond its editorial page.

The Times, with its industry-leading 125 Pulitzers, should be leading by example instead of being made an example of.  

Joe Concha (@JoeConchaTV) is a media reporter for The Hill and host of "What America's Thinking."