Stop the Sensationalizing

In reporting on the Hong Kong protests, The Maroon’s news team failed to depict the complexities of the situation, opting instead for a sensationalist title.

By David Liang

As I slowly made my way out of a jam-packed Reg room last Monday following a heated discussion on the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, I was overwhelmed by a sense of happiness and relief—no disruptions, no hecklers, only constructive dialogue. The hour-and-a-half-long symposium, in which panelists both debated the University’s response to the protests and engaged questions from the audience, embodied not only civic engagement, but also a triumph of civil discourse. Events like Monday’s speak to why many of us chose to attend the University of Chicago, where we learn how to engage in constructive discourse and disagree without being disagreeable on complex, urgent, and often sensitive issues. 

When I first came across The Maroon’s recent headline on this symposium, however, I questioned whether we had indeed attended the same event. “Protestors? ‘Terrorists.’ Carrie Lam? ‘A Sinner for A Thousand Years,” the online title reads. “Beijing, Hong Kong Backers Clash,” reads the headline of the same article in print. 

The situation in Hong Kong is incredibly complex and is constantly evolving, which the distinguished panel on Monday well-understood. Emily Lau, a former pan-democratic lawmaker, may have called Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, “a sinner for a thousand years” for her political inaction, but also criticized the protestors for their lack of leadership and organization. Henry Ho, a former advisor to the Hong Kong government, may have dubbed protestors “terrorists.” but also stressed the need for governmental de-escalation. Indeed, as much as the speakers disagreed with one another on who should be held responsible for the situation in Hong Kong, both agreed to condemn the use of extreme violence. 

In covering the event, however, The Maroon failed to fully depict these complexities. In both online and print publications, the editors of this article grossly simplified the speakers’ nuanced discussions on this multidimensional issue into sensationalist catchphrases that only serve to polarize. 

One might defend The Maroon's editorial freedom to choose whatever headlines it sees fit for its news articles. One might even claim it makes complete sense to publish titles that intrigue and provoke, given the limited attention span for most casual readers of campus news. However, at a time of such heightened tension between the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong students on university campuses across the world, these sensationalist headlines are especially problematic. By labeling protesters as “terrorists” and calling the embattled Hong Kong leader “a sinner for a thousand years,” the headline establishes a false dichotomy between the most extreme positions of pro-government hardliners and pro-protest diehards, leaving no room for discussion, let alone compromise. In reality, both Chinese mainland and Hong Kong students have mixed feelings about the latest developments in Hong Kong: some students who favor the heavy-handed approach of the Hong Kong police to restore law and order may have gained sympathy for the protests after the mass arrests of teenagers as young as 12. Conversely, those who back the pro-democracy protest may have reservations about lending their unequivocal support after protestors set on fire a dissenting man. Indeed, rather than facilitating productive civil discourse, the headlines sow bitter divisions within the already fractured student body. 

In July, a fight broke out at the University of Queensland in Australia when mainland Chinese students clashed with their Hong Kong peers at a rally in support of the extradition bill protest. Punches were thrown and police were called to the scene. At many universities in the U.S., students with opposing views on the Hong Kong protests were bullied and threatened both online and in-person for publicly taking a side on the situation. No one wants to see such tension and hatred take shape on our own campus. 

I understand The Maroon’s need to write creative titles to generate more clicks for its website. The smartly titled article on the opening of Strings Ramen, for instance, aroused my appetite harmlessly. Adding fuel to a burning pile of wood when a strong wind is already fanning the flame, however, would only cause a forest fire. When reporting on an issue as polarizing as the Hong Kong protest, The Maroon should prioritize objectivity over passion, and neutrality over creativity. Bland as it may be, a descriptive headline such as “Panelists Debates the Future of Hong Kong” would have been far less polarizing than the ones in question. To the news editors who titled the story on the Hong Kong symposium, think before you publish. Stop the dangerous sensationalizing before the forest catches on fire.