Guest post: Too much sensationalism in online headline writing?

Students in my Advanced Editing course are contributors to The Editor’s Desk this semester. They are free to write about whatever they wish, provided that the topic fits the theme for this blog: “thoughts on editing for print and online media.”

This is the fifth of these guest posts. Nathaniel Jordan, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior from Winston-Salem who is majoring in journalism, plans to switch gears and study accounting at the graduate level. He has an intense love for college and professional sports, and enjoys writing, playing golf and spending time with friends.

When I go online to read the news, I try to look at a variety of outlets. The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and Fox News are a few of the many different online publications I regularly read. And while the former two have a definite hard news, by-the-book feel to them, the latter two seem to be enamored with using news more for entertainment value than for reporting information to the public.

This significant difference in reporting style is most evident in the news value judgments and resulting story headlines coming out of each of the aforementioned news sources. A quick glance at the most read stories on CNN.com and Foxnews.com gives a clear idea of each outlet’s goal: shock the reader with a bold and often insensitive headline in order to gain readership. In other words, these two outlets (and others, no doubt) seem to prey on readers’ sensitivities by feeding them sensational headlines that could easily have been written to fit the hard news mold as opposed to the attention-grabbing, feature-like form.

For example, CNN.com ran a story Feb. 18 about a 5-year-old boy who was eaten by a crocodile in Australia. While the headline (“Remains of five-year-old boy found in crocodile’s stomach”) is definitely informative, I think it’s a little too vivid. Certainly there are times when descriptive headlines work to a publication’s advantage, but in this case I believe specifying the way a young child died a grisly death could have been saved for the body of the story. After all, what is the real hope of running a headline like this? To report the news or to shock readers and hope they will want to find out more?

Another story from the same day featured an equally graphic headline. In this headline, a woman who was brutally murdered is referred to as a “beheaded woman.” Though that is a quick and easy identifier, it seems slightly disrespectful and insensitive. A word like “slain” would have been a better replacement for “beheaded.” Again, I think it’s crucial to ask about the motivation for running this type of headline.

I was not surprised to find that for most of Feb. 18, these two stories were the most read on CNN.com. Surely, the headline of each story was the main reason why so many read these articles. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I find it hard to believe that a boy’s death in Australia and a woman’s beheading were the most prominent and significant stories of the day.

This brings me to an important question that I believe needs to be asked as it relates to online news: Is there too much freedom in headline writing for online news publications? In print, headlines follow a pretty standard, albeit predictable form. And though print headlines can walk the fine line between being clever and being insensitive, I believe this trend is far more prevalent in online news headlines.

I want to point out that I am not advocating a ban on clever journalism. I love creative headlines that attract the reader’s attention. After all, something has to draw the potential reader to the story. But when attention is sought using seemingly desperate means which often translate to a lack of respect for the subject of the story in a headline, standards need to be reviewed and altered.

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One thought on “Guest post: Too much sensationalism in online headline writing?

  1. The writer says: “I find it hard to believe that a boy’s death in Australia and a woman’s beheading were the most prominent and significant stories of the day.” By many people’s standards, they indeed were not the most prominent and significant, but they were evidently the most universally interesting stories on that site.

    The copy editor’s job is not to calibrate each headline so that the level of vividness matches the story’s position in your hierarchy of what people should and shouldn’t be interested in.

    You set up a choice of using headlines “to report the news or to shock readers and hope they will want to find out more.” The reporting is done in the story. The headline is not reporting — it’s advertising. A headline that is accurate but boring is just plain worse than a headline that is accurate and interesting. There are thousands of online stories about people who are “slain”; if one of them is beheaded, using “slain” in the headline is selling the story short. Do you want people to read it or not? “Well, yes, they should read it — that’s why it was published — but I want them to read it out of a noble social interest in crime statistics, not because it’s unusual and sensational and gory.”

    If you want to discuss the difference between print heads and online heads, I’d say that online heads must fight even harder to be intriguing and vivid because, compared with print heads, they have limitless competition and scant context. For instance, online heads must be more specific than print heads. You can get away with “Mayor rebukes airport chief” in your local paper, but the online version must include a clue about where this is taking place. A lot of clever heads don’t work without the context of “this is on the food page” or “this is a centerpiece with a photo of a puppy” or even “this is on the front page.”

    So yes, go for accuracy, but don’t disdain vividness. If you object to readers’ appetites for sensational or vulgar stories, your problem is with either story selection or human nature. Headlines are there to make people read the stories. Don’t blame them for putting the most saleable goods in the window.

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