This post was submitted by Lewis Borck (Faculty of Archaeology, Universiteit Leiden) and Ashleigh Thompson (School of Anthropology, University of Arizona).
Recently while cruising through a social media feed, we came across a headline from American Archaeology that read “The Mystery of Hohokam Ballcourts.” American Archaeology does excellent work, as does their parent organization, the not-for-profit Archaeological Conservancy. And to be honest, this isn’t the worst as headlines go. Yet, headlines like this that manipulate accuracy for the sake of drama are a problem.
Instead of highlighting Indigenous history and archaeological research with a headline like, “When Sports were Politics: What We Know About Hohokam Ballcourts,” the title panders to the conspiracy/discovery/exploration/mystery theme. Dramatizing history with the use of the term mystery erases how much descendant communities and archaeologists actually know. This erasure can lead to the continued marginalization and invisibility of contemporary Indigenous societies.
To be clear, just like in all histories–whether Germanic, Roman, Kenyan, Mongolian, Saami, or Tewa–there are real unknowns in the history of the American Southwest. The bigger issue with the term mystery is that while it can mean “difficult to understand,” it simultaneously means “impossible to understand.” This second use is really where the headlines manipulate how readers emotionally respond to words. Mysteries imply that there is no explanation. Yet, usually these “mysteries” have explanations (sometimes multiple competing ones) through archaeological, textual, and oral histories. While there are things that at this point it doesn’t seem we’ll ever know, what Indigenous knowledge holders know and what researchers are able to deduce and infer is increasing at a rapid rate.
More broadly, there are two major issues with headlines that aim to trick the public into clicking on them. First, headlines that appeal to our love of the unknowable create a reductive news cycle where gut reactions create and maintain the market. Marketing doesn’t just feed consumer desire; it creates it. So part of the issue with titles like “Mysterious lost Maya cities discovered in Guatemalan jungle” is that they create a market for these dramatic claims that have no connection to reality. They also dismiss Indigenous histories quite regularly (something archaeologists are sadly prone to do as well). This edutainment sensibility may be one reason why the market for archaeology is overwhelmingly swamped by sensationalist fringe and pseudoarchaeology claims of giants, advanced global civilizations, and aliens. Titles like these implicitly, but effectively, devalue the information held by archaeologists, historians, and traditional knowledge keepers.
The second problem is that many of the editors and institutions making these headlines think that they’ll draw folks in with hyperbole, but then educate them with details once they’re there. For example, when one of the authors opened a dialogue with American Archaeology, their response was:
Let’s be honest. This is an understandable position. There’s no point in writing something educational if no one reads it. Yet while the idea that snappy titles draws in readers and educates them is common, it is unsupported by any evidence. In fact, marketers have known for a long time that the headline, not the body of the text, is actually the most important piece of writing. David Ogilvy in Confessions of an Advertising Man wrote that 8 out of 10 people will never move past the headline. This is broadly supported by two recent studies demonstrating that 60 percent of people will share links without clicking on them. Another way to look at that is that 60 percent of the time, the headline is all that is consumed.
The headline is the market. If you are going to use a misleading title to purposely draw in readers and educate them, the reality is that you are actually misinforming 60 percent of the people interacting with your story. So right from the start, you’re already doing more miseducation than education. It’s also probably a larger miseducation impact than this as well since the study only accounted for “shares” and not people who saw the post on social media and didn’t share it.
This damage doesn’t stop with miseducation. For example, take headlines relating to archaeology in the Americas. There is a culturally constructed emotional value attached to most words that forms a cognitive shortcut for how we think. For some words, this emotional value is pretty minimal. For others, it draws on powerful cultural constructs to create a strong response. As noted above, mystery is one such word that has this strong emotional response. Others, in the U.S. at least, include travel and exploration and discovery.
These intersect in a cultural fuzzy feeling knot of wonder that editors tug on to create what they call a curiosity gap. This gap is supposed to make people curious enough to open the article. But this actually causes substantially more miseducation than education. Headlines that are both accurate and create the curiosity gap do take a lot of intellectual labor to create, but if editors don’t spend that time, then headlines that use words like mystery, explore, unknown, or vanished will continue to create a potent emotional reaction that in a lot of instances (the American Southwest or Great Plains for example) can serve to negate contemporary Indigenous histories, as well as expertise from Indigenous knowledge-holders, historians, and archaeologists. These headlines can even perpetuate, or worsen, negative stereotypes about First Nations groups in the Americas.
These myths of discovery and exploration are particularly damaging because they paint a picture where Indigenous groups are not able caretakers of their own histories and landscapes. Headlines that promote this contribute to the erasure of modern Indigenous connections to landscapes by denying what descendant communities and researchers know, as well as what they are capable of knowing. This has huge implications for Indigenous management of their traditional lands. For instance, tribes of the American Southwest are fighting for protection of cultural and ecological resources within Bears Ears National Monument; Anishinaabeg are protecting waters threatened by Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline; and tribes like the Tohono Oódham who are split by the southern U.S. border are confronting dramatically militarizing border policies to ensure their communities are not divided even further .
Reclaiming Native Truth noted that most U.S. citizens learn about modern Indigenous groups through the media and pop culture. So these sensational headlines disconnect Indigenous communities from their history in the public arena. This historical disconnection erases the presence of Indigenous groups from the public consciousness. According to a recent study by Reclaiming Native Truth, potentially 40 percent of the American population think that Native Americans no longer exist. This invisibility means that support for Indigenous struggles faces a steep uphill battle. Getting other Americans to understand that Native Americans are about three times more likely to be killed by police than their fellow white Americans, or that suicide is 72 percent more common among Native Americans than the rest of the U.S. population, is almost impossible if the voting public, or even the protesting and advocacy public, doesn’t know they are there. This invisibility also reinforces issues of historical trauma that studies have shown are linked to substance abuse, depression, and anxiety within many First Nations communities. This sort of erasure is also complicit in the looting of Indigenous historical sites because it makes it seem like a victimless crime. But, of course, it isn’t. As Frank Waln has said, “We are a people with a past, not of the past.”
Public perception of Indigenous communities is critical. Better understanding between tribal communities and society-at-large garners public support, which has benefited Indigenous peoples in the past. For example, when Standing Rock Lakota No Dakota Access Pipeline camps made national headlines, these stories created public support and impacted the trajectory of decisions made by the federal government .
As Crystal Echo Hawk, co-leader for Reclaiming Native Truth, said, “The research really challenges the media to do their job better. The media has a deep ethical responsibility to not fall into these standardized tropes.” If those of us working in the intersection between the media, the public, and archaeological/historical research continue to create headlines that SPREAD misinformation to 95.2 percent of people who interact with them, we’ll be contributing to this long term threat to Indigenous lifeways, resources, and lands.
Echo-hawk continues, “We can do a lot in terms of empowering Native voices and telling Native stories, but we can’t do it on our own. We need non-Natives as allies who are also talking about us and championing accurate representation.” Archaeologists, historians, and those of us writing headlines for media and social media consumption can be those allies. As Kate Gann wrote in a call for her fellow editors to refrain from hyperbolic headlines: “Is this a mystery? No, it’s a research question. It’s a conversation. It’s a complicated narrative pulsing through living peoples’ songs, stories, and traditions.”
Let’s do better.