In journalism, the hypothetical headline “Man Bites Dog” captures the essence of what makes news: something unexpected. That helps explain why the tragic case of Gabrielle Petito, the 22-year-old white woman who disappeared in August 2021 in Wyoming and was eventually found dead, drew weeks of nationwide news coverage. Yet tens of thousands of Black girls and women go missing every year and don’t get national headlines. As crime scholar Jean Murley explains in the New Yorker, to Americans “it’s an aberration” that something terrible happened to a young, white woman.

When the media spend more time or use more words covering such ‘aberrations,’ it may be due to a psychological phenomenon that Northwestern’s Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Chicago Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach call ‘surprised elaboration.’ People are apt to write more about events they find surprising, a reflection of their tendency to seek explanations for developments that seem unusual, according to the researchers’ work.

Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach’s study of a variety of written communications from US sources, looking specifically at word counts, uncovers surprised elaboration and indicates that the number of words used can reveal subconscious biases.

For the first part of the study, Eskreis-Winkler and Fishbach collected posters of actively missing children from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Each poster included a physical and narrative description of the child. In more than 1,000 posters, the researchers find that those for white children were more detailed and 30 percent longer than those for Black or Hispanic children.

The researchers also analyzed reports by police officers and medical examiners. The same pattern played out: for example, the write-ups for unidentified bodies were more specific and detailed for white people than for Black or Hispanic people.

Why some cases get more attention

An analysis of missing-children posters in the United States finds that those of white children contained more words and details, on average, than those of Black and Hispanic children. Researchers attribute this to an incorrect assumption, grounded in stereotype, that white children go missing less often.

Fishbach, giving the example of her name, says surprised elaboration can happen for anything different from what people are used to. In the United States, the traditional Hebrew name Ayelet is uncommon, so people often remark on how interesting it is. Fishbach says that there often is no bad intent in surprised elaboration. “When we try to evaluate other people’s speech, how much they have said is often a function of their surprise and not how important they think something is,” she says.

Switching to positive events, the researchers analyzed 483 articles from the New York Times’ wedding archive between January 1, 2016, and October 21, 2018. The 48 pieces on same-sex couples averaged 731 words, while articles about heterosexual couples were on average 517 words.

Surprised elaboration reflects implicit biases based in social stereotypes and structural racism. Racial stereotypes teach people to expect bad things to happen to children and adults of color and good things to happen to white people, so when a white person goes missing or is found dead, surprised elaboration can lead to a longer report. Similarly, given the newness of legal same-sex marriage in the US in 2016–18, a same-sex wedding was still unexpected and therefore garnered longer descriptions in the New York Times.

Regardless of whether or not people mean harm, there can be serious and even life-or-death ramifications and public-policy implications. When official reports and news stories dedicate more time and detail to a subject, it sends a signal to readers and listeners that it’s important in a way that other communications are not. “People prefer to invest resources in cases accompanied by longer reports—even when longer reports contain no additional information,” the researchers write.

They showed the medical examiners’ write-ups to online participants and asked them to mark each one as either high or low priority for receiving government resources. Although the participants didn’t learn the race of each body involved, reports on white bodies generated higher average prioritization scores than those on Black and Hispanic bodies. The researchers link this to the reports’ length and level of detail.

“While writers are often advised to think about word count for stylistic reasons, we point to the psychology of longer texts—what prompts communicators to elaborate in the first place, and how lengthier text influences the reader,” the researchers write. They urge journalists, police, and public officials to be mindful of their communications and of what their reports signal about importance and priority.

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