On Monday morning, Time magazine’s website featured a story about a photo taken at the Baton Rouge protests after the death of Alton Sterling. The headline was “Everybody is talking about this photo from the protests in Baton Rouge.”
The story itself, now that I’d been clickbaited in, didn’t reveal much. The photographer was Reuters’ Jonathan Bachman. The names of the woman being arrested and the two riot gear-clad policemen aren’t listed, though crowdsourcing had already revealed that she was Ieshia Evans. (The names of the policemen hadn’t been determined at the time I wrote this.)
But of more concern to me was the headline. My old employer, CNN, used a similar tease. Yahoo, picking up Time’s story, used their source’s headline.
It’s a stupid headline.
The language is misleading, of course: Was “everyone” talking about this photograph? It had certainly gone viral since it was taken on Saturday, but though I spend more time than is healthy online, I didn’t see it until Monday morning. I imagine others were in the same situation.
That’s beside the point, though. It’s the phrase that bothers me. “The (blank) that everyone’s talking about” is the come-on of the carnival barker, the sales pitch of the hustler. It’s lazy.
“What everyone’s talking about” is what “Access Hollywood” hints at before they show the latest Kardashian outrage (pardon me, “outrage”) — which comes just before they cut to a commercial break.
Other sites were more thoughtful.
” ‘Graceful in the lion’s den’: Photo of young woman’s arrest in Baton Rouge becomes powerful symbol,” went the Washington Post. “Black Lives Matter protest photo hailed as ‘legendary’,” said the BBC. “This iconic photo captures the spirit of the movement for black lives in Baton Rouge,” noted Vox. (However, I’m subtracting points from Vox for using the over- and misused “iconic.”)
Is the photo newsworthy? Absolutely. But an “everybody’s talking about” headline strips it of context — and importance. “Everybody talks” about a lot of things — that insane sports play, that shocking interview quote, that racy Instagram post. Instead of the story, we’re talking about the audience for the story. And you don’t want to be left out of that audience — do you? — says the man tap-dancing and bloviating outside the tent.
(CNN’s mobile headline, incidentally, was “The protest image you can’t unsee.” Better, but only just — “you can’t unsee” is a situation-comedy phrase for when you stumble in on your naked parents making love, usually accompanied by “Oooooyecch.”)
In general, there are better ways to convey the weight of an important story than invoking “everyone.” On November 25, 1963, the story “everyone was talking about” was John F. Kennedy’s funeral. But there were no words necessary for the famous shot of JFK Jr. saluting his father’s coffin. Nor were there any overt statements in the best piece about that day — Jimmy Breslin’s column about the man who dug JFK’s grave.
Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did.
He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Bachman’s photo may, indeed, become another Tiananmen Square Tank Man or Flower Power at the Pentagon. But a photo’s virality is no long-term indication that it will live on past the daily news cycle. Perhaps another photo taken by Bachman, of an African-American man apparently being held on the ground, will eventually become the face of the protests. I’d argue it’s more upsetting.
Ironically, there was another story Monday that “everybody was talking about.” That was Pokemon Go. I’ll bet even the Kardashians were talking about it.