Why Are Headline Writers Always Wrong?

Why Are Headline Writers Always Wrong?
The answer won’t surprise you in the least.

Bill Walsh, a copy editor at the Washington Post, once remarked that “Writing headlines is a specialty — there are outstanding writers who will tell you they couldn’t write a headline to save their lives.”

Given the rise of online news headlines that appear to have been written by interns wholly unfamiliar with the content of the articles their headlines purport to describe, such specialists must be a dying breed — all the more so if otherwise outstanding writers are sacrificing themselves in the effort.

I kid.

But what is a headline? Is it merely a way of fooling potential readers into thinking there might be nudity (ideally, a naked Kardashian) somewhere in the article?

The presence of breasts focuses the mind, as a wise man once said.

Wait, that was me. Never mind.

Wikipedia, which is never wrong (see also, “sarcasm”), defines a headline as “text indicating the nature of the article below it.”

Compact and descriptive. I like it.

Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, mutters something about “the title written in large letters over a story in a newspaper,” a rather archly narrow definition as to venue (what about magazines, websites, and the like?), but open-ended as to function (the function of a headline being, presumably, to give the reader an accurate sense of the article’s subject matter).

I’ll leave it to others to explore the wonderful world of what Derek Thompson at The Atlantic calls “headline tropes that multiply like viruses across the News Feed of your life.”

I’m looking at you, Vox.

No, what galls me are news headlines (or Twitter teases) that directly contradict news content — albeit in ways ranging from subtle, to so painfully obvious that they might be largely responsible for the much-discussed opioid epidemic.

Earlier this month, Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) gave his Trumpkinist challenger, Paul Nehlen, a world-class ass-thumping, winning “80 percent of the vote with nearly 90 percent of the district’s precincts reporting,” Robert Costa wrote at the time.

The initial headline? “Paul Ryan weathers his primary but GOP’s populist storm still rages,” which can be seen in the article’s URL, although the headline itself was later changed to “Paul Ryan easily wins his primary, but GOP’s populist storm still rages.”

Winning over 80% of the primary vote in ones Congressional district is hardly “weathering” a “storm,” is it?

Why the hyperbole? Media outlets thrive in part on conflict (in addition to breasts), so “Paul Ryan barely notices human speed bump Paul Nehlen” might not optimize ones clicky metrics and suchlike.

Then again, maybe this has something to do with the rise of dumb headlines: “Scientists determine how much pot is in a joint. Here’s what they learned.”

I think the headline writer probably meant to say how much THC, but perhaps thought the acronym for marijuana’s primary psychoactive ingredient a bit too jargony, and ended up with an exceedingly silly construction instead.

And then there’s raging understatement: “Orlando Highlights Islam’s Complicated Relationship With Homosexuality.”

I bet it does.

But I shouldn’t complain about inaccurate, misleading, or overblown headlines. Things could be worse: “When a newspaper apologizes for publishing an accurate headline.”

The nail which sticks up gets a good pounding.

I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge all the headline writers out there who are masters of their craft: “Fans bewildered by lack of country music at CMT Awards.”

Well done. Well done, indeed.

Finally, there are the unintentionally hilarious headlines. For example: “Prince’s death raises numerous questions about his health,” which was so wonderful they changed the URL altogether.

And yes, in case you were wondering, the headline of this article was misleading. Anyone need a headline writer?

Call me.


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