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A Video Game Can’t Tell You Why New York Times Headlines Suck, But It’s A Start 

The New York Times Simulator lets you pretend to be a homepage editor

A screenshot from the game "The New York Times Simulator:" a mock newspaper homepage with various headline possibilities to the left. In front, a version of Clippy in a green helmet says "Our friends in the intelligence community and our very owners are fuming over our coverage of the Israel-Hamas war."

Last week, Paolo Pedercini released The New York Times Simulator, a free, browser-based game where the player tries to juice the subscriber numbers of the eponymous newspaper while keeping various stakeholders happy. It was a game that felt very relevant last week, and feels relevant today, as the situation in Gaza and mainstream outlets’ coverage of it continue to get worse.

Pedercini, known for political games, says The New York Times Simulator was inspired by Lucas Pope’s 2012 The Republia Times. As in that game, you’re in charge of arranging a flood of headlines on the front page of the paper, with a lot of freedom to rearrange and swap them out. In Times Simulator, headlines, placement, and newness affect reader response, measured in emojis, comments, and the effect it has on the virtual Times’ subscriber count. There are also meters representing three interest groups–the rich, the police, and Israel; displeasing a group enough to tip it into the red ends the game. The main way to keep these groups happy is to tinker with a story’s headline, changing the straightforward “Several Killed In Israeli Attack On Overcrowded UN Shelter In Gaza” to the more vague “UN Officials Say Shells Hit A Crowded Shelter In Gaza.” You can also lean back on covering certain topics, filling the frontpage with puff pieces about literary landmarks and cocktails instead of actual news about war, poverty, or police brutality. Pedercini writes that the game is “based on hundreds of real world news and headlines” and features “the passive voice and many common framing techniques.” 

New stories show up rapidly, and stories age over time and need to be replaced to keep your subscriber count from dropping. In my playthroughs, the game felt surprisingly fast-paced and enjoyably stressful. The message quickly becomes obvious: that mainstream outlets like The Times slant their coverage to appease powerful interests, at the expense of accurately reporting the news. While I’d argue this is, by necessity, a bit simplistic, it gives players a hands-on way of understanding how a headline can affect perception of a news event. 

The New York Times has faced intense criticism for its coverage of Gaza and its seemingly pro-Israel slant. The latest entry in this came yesterday, following an IDF strike on the branded trucks of food aid organization World Central Kitchen that killed seven people. The Times’ headline of the updating story, last I checked this morning, was “Netanyahu Calls Deadly Strike That Killed Aid Workers ‘Tragic’ but Unintentional.” This is a true reporting of the latest event –the “news” here is that Netanyahu said something, and the hed conveys what he said. Earlier, a Times headline on the event read “Founder Of World Central Kitchen Says Several Workers Killed In Gaza Air Strike;” this is true but not exactly correct, given that WCK founder Jose Andres actually called it an “IDF air strike in Gaza.” I’m not sure how confirmation of the strike unfolded, and it’s very likely that at the time of writing up a breaking news event The Times could not confirm to its standards that the IDF had attacked the WCK trucks. Nevertheless, if it was important to a journalist or their outlet, it would certainly have been possible to include who Andres blamed for the strike in a headline, appropriately couched with the various “said”s and “claim”s in their toolbox. While simply attributing a claim to a source doesn’t give a journalist free rein to print things they don’t know to be true without doing more behind-the-scenes work, were this story in my hands, Andres blaming the IDF feels like a newsworthy fact on par with Netanyahu’s statement about intentionality. 

Another story about the strike on The Times’ homepage reads “Here’s What We Know About The Strike That Killed Seven World Central Kitchen Workers.” Interestingly, on the story itself, at the time of this writing the hed reads “What We Know About The Israeli Strike That Killed 7 Aid Workers In Gaza.” This has some real New York Times Simulator vibes; while it’s very common for outlets to use different heds on the homepage than on a story, the change here very clearly hides the blame from readers just looking at the homepage. For comparison, the headline on The Washington Post’s homepage (former employer of Aftermath co-founders Nathan Grayson and me) reads “World Central Kitchen Says 7 Workers Killed By Israeli Strike In Gaza, Halts Aid,” with the story hed reading “Israeli Strike Kills 7 World Central Kitchen Workers, Group Halts Aid.” The difference here is one of attribution; you could argue “says” is a couch that softens culpability (the verb is “saying,” not “striking”), though you could also argue that The Post’s homepage hed makes clear the source of its information while still highlighting who is culpable. Both heds at Eater, a food site with a different audience and different journalism baggage than The Post or The Times, read “IDF Strike Kills 7 World Central Kitchen Members In Gaza.” The stories all published at different times during an unfolding event, when different facts were confirmable, but their different approaches are clear.

I’ve never worked at The Times, and have no special insight into the thought process of its homepage editors or any powerful groups it might want to appease with its headlines and coverage. In my time at The Post, similar conversations I was party to sometimes revolved around that most cursed journalistic idea of objectivity, a tired concept that can cause well-meaning efforts to report news with the strictest accuracy to fail to rise to the moral urgency of a situation as readers feel it. This all gets tangled up in the age-old claim that journalists aren’t activists, a not-fully-untrue idea that journalists need to maintain a certain distance from causes and events (what “distance” is, and how much distance is required, is a matter for debate), but one that more often than not seems to suggest that to be a “real journalist” you need to stand apart from all the actual stuff of the human world, and holding any opinion at all–most especially if you’re anything other than a straight white cis person–makes you inherently biased and untrustworthy. 

There’s no agreed-upon definition of what journalism is and how it should be done, no universal headline standards to apply. But there’s no question The Times is failing the moment, refusing to do the basic journalistic job of calling things what they are and having, as Samer Kalaf at Defector writes, a “policy of strict objectivity [that] only ever seems to go one way.” While The New York Times Simulator isn’t a robust window into why news headlines are like this, it highlights the way that more considerations go into them than just here is a fact. In my own experience, those considerations have included is this true, is this too long, will readers know what this is, is this the most important part, is this boring. Unlike The Times, both in the game and, it seems, in real life, how can I go out of my way to hide this fact has never entered in.  

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