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How Journalism Pieces Work

In journalism, your title is supposed to be the briefest possible summary of the main point of the story. Your first paragraph is supposed to be a repeat of that with additional information and then the rest of it should again reinforce the idea but continue to elaborate.

The idea behind that is that if all you read is the headline, you should have the most important piece of information in the article. Reading the headline should serve a useful purpose to help keep you informed of the news even if you don't read further.

The first paragraph is supposed to encapsulate the story and, again, give you something useful that wasn't in the headline even if you read no further. Journalistic pieces are supposed to be written such that you can stop at any point because they are front-loaded: The most essential information is given first and additional writing beyond that is supposed to elaborate and fill out your understanding of the topic.

These days, it's very well understood that attention is a scarce commodity and we have phrases like the attention economy. It's a busy world and trying to grab someone's attention and get the most important pieces of information through to them is challenging.

So public media relies really heavily on hooks. It relies really heavily on words, phrases and images that serve as shorthand for a much larger concept or subject.

You really need to convey a lot with very little in order to both get any meaningful information into the hands of the audience and also try to draw them in further by signaling "This is a piece about X topic" so they can readily determine if it is a thing they want to bother to read.

Since a "picture's worth a thousand words" if you have photos in your story, you want them to say a lot so you can get a lot of bang for your buck. You want them to encapsulate certain things and signal certain details very clearly.

It's really common for images of the Eiffel Tower to be used as shorthand for either the city of Paris or the country of France. It's unique and everyone knows where it is and it's a point of pride and so forth.

Using such images isn't intended to suggest that the Eiffel Tower is all there is to Paris. It's just intended to quickly and easily signal to people what place we are talking about.

If you know it's Paris or France, you know something about the culture, the language, the geography and so forth. It's a package deal and that one symbol helps you access a whole lot of associated information to give you some context.

For some topics, such practices can easily go bad places. Natives complain of what they call White Gaze. They complain that things like feathered headdresses get overused and misused.

Native nations were mostly mobile cultures. This is part of what created the friction where Whites showed up from Europe went "Gosh, this land is UNOCCUPPIED. It's FREE. I can just build a house right here! And claim it as mine, all mine!" and then a few months later some tribe would return to their winter stomping grounds and find a bunch of White people had built houses there and fenced off the best bits of land.

So Whites never strongly associated tribal peoples with their lands. Natives related to the land differently than White Europeans and it didn't parse for Whites and there never was a good meeting of the minds, which is what led to the mess that currently exists.

So now you have sovereign nations that the world views through the lens of "It's just these people and there is no land or landmarks associated with them." and that's true in part because Whites came and claimed their lands.

There is no equivalent of the Eiffel Tower to give a quick and dirty visual signal to readers that "We are talking about the Cherokee people." So how do you signal that you are talking about these people in news stories or other articles?

Well, we use symbols like the Native headdress to signal that. We use symbols more closely associated with the people than with some place because these people aren't associated with some place in our minds.

That doesn't mean the criticisms of this practice by Natives are invalid. It doesn't mean that practice shouldn't be criticized and eventually discontinued.

It does mean that simply attacking the practice probably won't resolve the problem. Using a headdress or similar is the answer that public media know and they will tend to rely on it because it's what they have available to them.

So the real solution would involve finding other symbols for them to latch onto that would be more acceptable to Natives as a symbol of their people while still serving the intended purpose. And I don't know what synbols you could use currently or develop to serve the same purpose without offending Natives.

I simply don't know enough about specific Native cultures to suggest some other symbols. I just know enough about writing and journalism to suggest an explanation for the current practice of using photos of Natives in traditional headdress or similar.

Understanding how journalism is supposed to work is an essential first step for anyone wanting to fix such issues. First know why they do that and then try to come up with an alternate solution that journalists might find a useful or even superior substitute for the current practice.

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