Think about the news stories you encountered today. Where did they come from? What did they cover? Did you even read beyond the headline?

News is all around us—for better or worse— inundating us with information at a dizzying pace through a staggering plethora of sources and mediums. But how often do we cut through the noise and pause to consider what’s being presented to us? Better yet, how often do we notice the implicit racial biases so deeply engrained within news media? This is precisely what Alexandra Bell seeks to expose in her poignant artwork: large-scale print outs of newspaper articles edited to highlight racial discrimination through redacted text, rewritten headlines and alternative images.

Bell received her Master’s degree from Columbia’s graduate journalism school in 2013, adding to the multidisciplinary studies and humanities degree from the University of Chicago she earned in 2005, where she delved into subject areas from media studies to creative writing and race politics. Bell doesn’t recall a specific course focusing on bias in the media, but the sheer amount of reading she was required to do—three papers a day, which meant the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Daily News—allowed her to quickly expose and identify the distinct editorial tone of each publication.

“That trained my eye to think about the way things are presented across papers, but when you have a lot of repetitive stories, like police violence or the migrant crisis, I think in some ways you start to wonder, what is the benefit of journalism?” Bell says, who is now based in Brooklyn, New York. “Is it to affect change? Can it affect change? What does it mean if we’re reporting the same thing over and over again?”

Bell’s prints, the first of which was released in December 2016, investigate the ways in which the media discuss people and race. She notes that racism is, in a sense, in the DNA of everything and that even the most well-intentioned or well-written pieces can perpetuate inherent bias. “It’s almost like a stain that’s still present,” she says.

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The early iterations of Bell’s work began with notes added in the margins of news stories she read that were loaded with racial prejudice. As her practice progressed, she started producing the larger-format pieces installed in subway stations and public spaces throughout Brooklyn. Bell has three of these large format pieces to her credit thus far, all of which have been pulled from the New York Times, her primary news source. The first in the series features two striking prints of articles that surfaced around the time of Michael Brown’s funeral in 2014. One article is a profile of the Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Brown, an unarmed teenager, while the other is a feature about Brown that bears the headline “A Teenager Grappling with Problems and Promise.” Bell’s edits are extensive, removing superfluous portions of the story until the only remaining words read, “Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.”

Journalists are taught to be objective rather than advocate for any one cause or individual, and Brown chose the piece to illustrate how even a more liberal paper can implicitly evoke discrimination and racial bias. “I remember seeing the article and being like, ‘Someone was really trying to tick off all the objectivity boxes, and this is a really bad moment to apply that kind of thinking.’ These aren’t two equal people,” Bell explains. “I get that some of it was aesthetic and some of it was editorial, but it was in such poor taste that I remember thinking that whatever effort they may have been making to apply some kind of sameness to these people, it was ill-conceived.”

Her second piece was a prominent New York Times story involving the swimmer Ryan Lochte and the robbery that occurred during the Brazil Olympics. The headline, “Accused of Fabricating Robbery, Swimmers Fuel Tension in Brazil,” is positioned above a photo of runner Usain Bolt, who won gold. The contrast between the headline and photo was so glaring that Bell says there was confusion as to whether it was real or she had created her own interpretation of what a paper might do. Her edits replaced the photo of Bolt with one of Lochte and rewrote the headline to read, “Rio Gas Station Footage Reveals White-American Swimmers Were Aggressors.”

What may seem innocuous to some only enforces the validation of whiteness so prevalent in media while identifying anyone who falls outside the demographic as “other.” For example, Bell’s most recent piece uses an article about Stanley Vernon Majors, a white man facing murder charges in the death of Khalid Jabara, whom Majors had subjected to racial taunting. The headline does not identify Majors’ race, referring to him as “Tulsa Man” but identifies Jabara as Lebanese-American.

“At this point, Lebanese is like a code word for terrorist. We’ve kind of dragged many of these communities through the mud,” Bell says. “The man who was killed I think had lived in Oklahoma for 30 years, so isn’t he also a Tulsa man?”

Bell’s work has sparked strong reactions, but she’s not after the journalists or publications that publish the stories. Journalists are working within a framework and a longstanding institution, she explains, and while she can’t speculate on an individual’s motives when writing a story, the stories she pulls have violated something for her. She’s interested in exploring what’s missing from the news versus what’s repeatedly reported on; how it’s framed and where it’s placed within the hierarchy of a publication— why certain stories are given front-page prominence while others are sequestered to the inner pages.

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“They offer this opportunity for me to dig through that visually and then use the actual story as a sort of canvas,” she says. “It’s so much beyond the writer at that point because there’s all these moving parts, but if the moving parts are reproducing similar things, that’s something to look at. If I’m looking at headlines and I never see ‘White American,’ there’s this assumption that everyone who’s white belongs, they live here and aren’t questioned. But I may see African-American somewhere, so I’m really interested in that.”

Bell would like to branch out to work on other publications, and with so many to choose from there is the question of how fake news comes into play. Fake news has sparked widespread mistrust and concern surrounding media, but Bell points out it’s hardly a new phenomenon. Fake news has existed for hundreds of years and resulted in dire consequences for those impacted. The only difference between then and now is that the internet has allowed stories to be churned out quickly, and there isn’t a vetting process to publish online.

“A lot of lynchings happened from fake news. Towns were burned down by faulty news,” Bell says. “There were stories out there where you were only quoting white people or people in a position of power. There were so many instances of something we could term fake news or we could term problematic journalism, where there were so many other voices omitted that what we had probably wasn’t founded, probably wasn’t true and impacted communities in violent ways.” Bell is more intrigued by the problematic frameworks that exist in news media. A recent example she cites is the compassion towards the opioid crisis versus the crack epidemic, a catalyst for terms like “crack baby” that villainized the black community. In contrast, the opioid crisis has resulted in people seeking treatment, preventative measures and ways to avoid death.

“I don’t hear things about people going to jail in droves or families being broken up. There’s this completely different way that it’s being—if I can say this about papers— marketed,” Bell explains. “In some ways it becomes so egregious that you can almost look at the former framework as kind of fake news, right?”

Bell’s hope is that her work will push people to read beyond the headline, question the way people are framed, what terms are applied to each person in the story and how difference is articulated.

“It’s not even so much about seeking out bias as being invested in news and what you’re taking in. I think people want to be in the know about everything so much that they’re not thinking about how they come across that information,” she says. “If something interests you, look at it, question it. Think about what another perspective could be.”

• MEAGHAN BAXTER

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