A case study for bias in headlines (Teenager shot as an intruder while accidentally sneaking into the wrong home)

camboy_72 on the Urban Planning subreddit posted a link to a Fox News article about a death in Virginia. What appears to have actually happened is:  a High School junior went out with his friends and got drunk, so he had to sneak back home, and came in through a back window.  But he accidentally snuck into the wrong house.  The homeowner, hearing the burglar alarm, got his gun, warned the teen, fired a warning shot, then, when the teen was walked past him, up the stairs, shot and killed him. On the Urban Planning subreddit, camboy_72 titled the link: Yet another (tragic) reason to despise cookie-cutter subdivisions.  To that point, Allison Klein and Michael Allison Chandler at the Washington Post write,

A day later, Caleb’s friends and family were trying to figure out how this promising, well-liked athlete, who stayed out of trouble and generally listened to his parents, could have died in such a way.

“They have the exact same staircase as us, the exact same carpet. Caleb clearly thought he was in his own house,” said his father, Shawn Gordley, who provided the account of his son’s night. “He probably stumbled around and was just trying to go to his room.”

(emphasis mine)

That one pretty obviously shows extreme bias, but it also came from an explicitly and openly biased source:  a subreddit about urban planning.  I agree with that point, by the way -- it's seriously screwed up to live in an environment where you can't tell your own home from the other ones on the street.  And while we're on the point, this is also a really good case study for why people shouldn't have guns in their homes.  Intruder ≠ violent attacker.

But I'm more interested in the way Fox headlined the story.  For a baseline, this is how the Washington Post titled the Associated Press story:

Sheriff says homeowner fired warning shot at teen intruder who mistakenly entered wrong home

And here's how Fox headlined the same story:

Homeowner fired warning before fatally shooting teen intruder, sheriff says

The story after that is the same, but I've said before and I cannot stress this enough, most people, most of the time, mostly just read headlines.  Especially if those headlines confirm our prejudices about the world, we tend not to feel like it's necessary to read past that.  The Washington Post headline contains enough relevant details that the point is clear to someone just scanning headlines on the main page: "Teenager made a mistake, got himself shot."  Whatever your views on gun control, that's a sufficiently complex idea to encourage reasonable thought.  The Fox headline, on the other hand, offers "Homeowner kills hooligan invading his house."

This failure, the failure of headlines, is not a trivial thing.  It's a major way that news sources either contribute to, or undermine, the prejudices of their audience.  Fox's headline defends the worldview in which the status quo is "Guns in the home save lives and property."  Whether or not that's a legitimate view, the particular story in question absolutely does not support it.  The view that this story supports is "Guns in the home kill innocent people."

The truth, obviously, is a complex combination of the two points, and a well-informed public would form opinions based on the facts of the degree to which the former or the latter is more true, as well as their own views about which is more important.  Fox, rather than encouraging that dialogue, is pursuing the anti-informational quality that  encourages their readers to deny even the existence of cases in which their status quo is, if not contradicted, even ever made complex.