Guest post: Too much sensationalism in online headline writing?

by andybechtel

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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