Gripping headlines and media gaffes

The Sun headline Falklands War 1982

The most (in)famous UK press headline ever?

I’d been meaning to post a short series on the practical problems of writing effective headlines. I’m now prompted into writing by a comment I just received, criticising a recent headline of mine:

BBC: US military death toll in Afghanistan reaches 2,000

The commenter complained about this insipid headline, and s/he was correct. (I didn’t publish the criticism as the rest of the email looked a little “spammy”)

My only defence is that I was quoting the original headline on the BBC site. However, I admit that I already had my own reservations about it – so, why didn’t I compose my own?

I was truly caught out on this occasion!

Headline rules

As all of you involved at any level of journalism know, hitting on the “perfect” headline can be so, so difficult. After all, it’s what draws the reader to your story, and particularly so online.

There are several common-sense recommendations for effective presentation; the real difficulty is in the choice and combination of the words themselves.

Some considerations

  • Choose active verbs whenever possible, use present tense
  • Be positive, rather than negative
  • Convey the benefit to the reader
  • Be clear and unambiguous
  • Brevity is a virtue
  • Accuracy: the headline should relate directly to the story
  • Alliteration: debatable
  • Puns: can be dangerous
  • Use of keywords and avoidance of repetition of words
  • Link information to a picture

… and so on.

It’s interesting that several of the relevant sites I checked give different numbers of “rules” – one source lists no fewer than 21! And they all state that one may also break the rules, at times.

RULE 21 – BREAK THE RULES

If you can come up with a headline that breaks all 20 rules but still compels the reader to read on… then use it.”[2]

What a minefield!

A light-hearted survey of the international press

I have been collecting examples of headlines for several months. The sources are many and varied, from UK, USA and Bulgarian English-language news sites.

Why do I do this? Partly to teach myself to avoid some of the pitfalls into which even the most professional papers drop themselves at times.

And partly for fun. It’s always easy to criticise someone else’s writing, but the main point is for some harmless amusement. This is why I do not identify the sources – but it’s worth mentioning that some of the worst howlers come from the “quality” press, not the tabloids.

10 random offenders

1: “10 ton haul includes more than ten tons of elaborate marble statues, fountains and palace pillars looted from Polish rulers”

Brief? Accurate? Self-contradictory use of numbers;

2: “Bulgaria excited despite poor grape harvest”

Really?

3: “British soldier was shot dead by US helicopter”

Active vs. passive, improbable killer, also a redundant verb;

4: “Flooding feared ahead of heavy rain”

Implausible scenario, ambiguity;

5: “Chinese boy gets head stuck in stone balustrade”

Boring, irrelevant (published under News/International/Asia);

6: “Plymouth police taser man with samurai sword”

Delightful ambiguity – except for the swordsman;

7: “South African man accused of shooting dead Swedish honeymooner will go ahead”

Why shoot an already dead person? Ambiguity, again – and the key word “trial” missing:

8: “Ex-Israeli soldier jailed over deaths of Palestinian women”

Did they mean “ex-soldier”?

9: “Chaos Rains in Bulgaria over Drivers with Lights Off”

A spell-checker is not intelligent. Also, a house style allowing capitalisation can cause problems (“Off” vs. “over”);

10: “Witnesses describe shock at seeing Tate Modern fall”

No, the art gallery didn’t collapse – a visitor fell over a balcony parapet:

11: “Naked Miami man shot dead after being found eating another man’s face”

A gory bonus, and an awful headline (technically, I mean).

While preparing my next list of random examples, I’ll also have to carry out a critical review of my own headlines.

Meanwhile, if you come across some good examples of bad headlines, please send them in, along with a link to the source.

PS: I’ve broken the rules in the headline to this post: I should not have used “and”, but a comma. However, I maintain that I was justified, this time…

(For the story about The Sun’s infamous headline from the Falklands War (image above) from someone who was there back in 1982, follow this link.)[3]

[1]: BBC Online

[2]: BD Eye

[3]: The Guardian

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One Response to “Gripping headlines and media gaffes”

  1. Mark R.Milan Says:

    As someone that has been lucky enough to have some tabloid front pages with my images/stories used on them you realise how a good headline can make a story. thanks again for an amazing piece of insightful writing.

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