We published a story at Magicvalley.com on Thursday about a deadly car crash. And people freaked out.

Nobody had qualms about the story; it was the headline that sparked a debate on Facebook and in reader comments under the story on our website and a few emails to me: “Mexican man killed when pickup flips in Lincoln County.”

The newspaper was being racist, critics said, because we pointed out his ethnicity in the headline. “What’s next,” one reader posted, “FAT LADY DIES IN HEAD ON COLLISSION?”

No, that’s not next. And we did not point out his ethnicity. We pointed out his nationality.

Why?

Because when someone dies or makes news, we’ve found that readers tend to want to know where that person was from. That’s why you’ll see headlines all the time in the Times-News that may say things like: “Paul man injured in crash,” or “Burley woman convicted of murder” or “Twin Falls resident honored with award.”

In fact, our digital data have shown that readers tend to click on stories more frequently when the headline mentions a place. That’s not surprising, because people who live in Paul, for example, typically like reading about people who live in Paul.

“Jerome man killed in U.S. 93 crash” is an actual headline we printed not long ago. No one complained.

Think about it this way: Would anyone have complained about the Thursday story if the man had been from Canada and the headline had read: “Canadian man killed when pickup flips in Lincoln County?” What about if it was a Peruvian or German or Russian?

It works the other way, too: When an American student was beaten to death in Greece this summer, nearly every major news outlet in the United States ran a headline that was some version of “American student beaten to death in Greece.” Yes, “American,” not “Black student,” even though the student was black. The country of origin was worth noting in the headline; his race was not.

So what’s different about “Mexican?”

I think a few things are at play here.

For one, consider the political climate. Latinos (yes, that’s an ethnicity, not a nationality) feel under fire from the Donald Trump administration, especially this week when the president said he plans to end the so-called DACA program in six months, a move that would end protections for more than 800,000 children of illegal immigrants living in the United States.

Closer to home, Jerome County is in talks with federal immigration agents about housing suspected illegal immigrants at the county’s new jail, sparking fears in the immigrant community about roundups and deportations.

Consider, too, that not so long ago in the Magic Valley some people used the word “Mexican” in a derogatory sense. Even though “Mexican” is not a dirty word, its use caused some people to cringe, perhaps because they’ve heard it misused in the past.

Past and the present circumstances influence how we rationalize the news. So do our own milieus, the social environments that shape how we see the world. If you’re sensitive about discrimination, I can see how the headline might cause you to pause. If you’re concerned about being overly politically correct, I can see how outrage over the headline could seem ridiculous.

That’s how a seemingly innocuous descriptor of a person’s nationality can suddenly become a lightning rod for what we believe about race, politics, the media, everything. It was fascinating to read the online comments and see how quickly people upset by the headline turned on those justifying it, and vice versa. On both sides, their own biases about race were driving their outrage. This wasn’t so much a debate about word choice in a headline but about what people believed about racism. (It’s worth noting, too, that hardly anyone posted something about the tragic death of a human being; the focus was all on the headline.)

Ultimately, the conversation quickly devolved into a debate between “racists” and “snowflakes.”

So what’s the takeaway?

One, we have no plans to change our preferences for headline styles. Expect to keep seeing place names in headlines. They don’t have anything to do with race or ethnicity and everything to do with providing basic, relevant information.

Second, for me anyway, all the hubbub has reminded me to be a careful reader, to not project my own biases onto the news or try to find hidden meanings in word choices. Believe it or not, we in the hometown newspaper business aren’t secretly trying to provoke or make political points with word choices in car-crash headlines. We’re just trying to tell it like it is.

A Mexican is a person from Mexico. Simple as that.

Matt Christensen is editor of the Times-News.

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