”If you’re misleading the little homies, you ain’t no real big homie to me.” — Yo Gotti

Read through any list of headlines as you scroll social media or a news site, and you will find some that catch your attention, causing you to stop and read for at least a few lines into the story.

I’m always curious what headlines my editors will assign to my writing, and I am almost always pleased with their choices. The problem, of course, is when we see a sensational headline, and we don’t read beyond it, assuming the headline accurately represents the story which follows.

When we don’t take the time to read beyond the headline, we risk missing important truths or realizing truth is absent. When we don’t invest in teaching beyond a headline, we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to the next generation. Yo Gotti might be a name in a headline that leads you to think, “Oh, another rapper,” but when he realized messaging could lead kids down the wrong path, he called it out. We should, too, every time we see it.

I was awake in the middle of the night recently and did something I try to avoid — I scrolled through social media to see what was being discussed.

I saw a headline that caught my attention and made my blood boil. An adult had spoken to a teenager in a way that was inexcusable, almost unforgivable. Or had they? I wasn’t there; I didn’t hear it, and the reporting could have been wrong. So, I asked if anyone who I knew had been present and might provide me more information. But how often do we read/hear it, believe it, and never look for verification?

• We see a dog hurt someone, but then we are told the dog is really very nice. Which statement is the truth?

• One person says another person said something, and another person says they did not. Who is telling the truth?

• Cindy said Sally pulled her hair, and Sally said she was in the other room. Who do we believe?

• Money is missing from a drawer, and someone tells us they saw Ralph standing near the drawer. Why are we so quick to believe he is a thief?

Words matter.

When we choose to mislead others through our use of words, it matters.

When we mislead people by omitting words, it matters.

You know what else matters? Our reaction, and our wanting to believe certain things about certain groups or individuals.

I came across an article about a police officer who hid during a school shooting. He had lost his job and was being reinstated. There was a photo of a Black police officer with the article, which led many to think the officer was that Black man. The officer who had hidden was a white man and was not in the photo. The news service did a huge disservice to the gentleman in the photo and to Black people in general by their choice, and I think many of us do that to an awful lot of folks every day by how we choose to react to information we see and how we share information that we don’t know to be true.

Research (sometimes) shows that 80% of readers will click and share an article based on the headline. Only 20% of readers will read the body of the article before sharing.

Oddly enough, a site shared a headline titled, “Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.” The article, if you took time to read it, would make you laugh, since it was basically a bunch of Latin words typically found in a website template. It was nonsense, yet that article was shared around 46,000 times — proving the headline to be true — people believe what they read/hear and share it without ever really knowing if it’s true. Is that really how we want to live our lives?

Life is greater, and complete stories are more important than just headlines.

I worry that we adults have set up the next generation either to be completely ignorant or to laugh at the ignorance of their elders. Only time will tell, I suppose. But this has been a concern long before I was born.

Gustav Stresemann, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926, remarked in his speech, “Nothing is more misleading to the youth of a nation than to state the outcome immediately after the beginning as if nothing could have taken place in between. Mankind advances only through struggle.”

I take this to mean we can’t just give a headline and a conclusion. We need to understand the whole (sometimes painful) story.

There is so much more to life, to events, and to what matters in the history of our nation (and world) and the fairness in our families and communities. We can’t jump to conclusions based on the headlines, or in the earlier examples I mentioned, the words of one person, and expect life to go well. It isn’t healthy to spend our energy reacting to things when there is a much better option. Thinking, considering, and responding.

You might think a quick reaction is good, but as I saw a video of a lady jumping into action to help an overloaded forklift, I understood she should have weighed the situation for even a moment, and she probably wouldn’t have ended up crushed by the forklift.

When we react to what we hear, read, or even see, we risk saying or doing things we can’t really undo. We can apologize for words we wish we hadn’t been so hasty to speak, but the damage is often done.

You and I live in a time when checking facts is not too difficult, yet we also live in a time when life is busy, and our attention is pulled in many directions. The holidays mean being with people who might push our buttons, causing us to want to react to their “headline,” when we should be making an effort to slow down long enough to consider the entire “article.” There just might be little homies listening in.

Good luck to us all!

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at (stories@susanbsteen.com).

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