Guest post: Web headlines should tell, not ask

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 eighth of these guest posts. Caroline McMillan is a senior journalism major and the world’s biggest fan of “The Office.” She loves John Steinbeck, hates comma splices and wants to meet Roy Williams before she graduates. If you have any suggestions – better yet, connections – don’t hesitate to contact her at cbmcmill@email.unc.edu.

Last summer, a good friend of mine e-mailed me a link to the Web site of a student magazine headquartered eight miles down Tobacco Road. All in good fun, the subject line of her e-mail read, “Can [insert publication here] Write a Headline That’s Not a Question?” Amused, I clicked on the link to find that nine of the 11 top stories had headlines had been formatted as questions.

That’s not to say that there’s no place for the interrogative in the Web headline-writing business. But morphing a compelling subject-verb-object headline into a question doesn’t make it more profound. In fact, the interrogative can often weaken it by pulling the readers’ eyes from the active verb to the glaring punctuation mark.

For example, take this headline that appeared on the above Web site: “Why even bother playing football?” The short article discusses Duke University’s new football coach, David Cutcliffe, and how he hopes to turn the program around. In this instance, the question contradicts the article’s premise and adds unnecessary ambiguity. The reader could think the article is an anti-football sports’ column or a profile of a player — too much room for misinterpretation.

Consider this replacement headline: “New football coach energizes players and deflated program.” Less ambiguous and more informative, this headline answers questions without posing them itself.

In our increasingly Web-oriented news cycle, readers need headlines that are clear and concise, ones that disclose as much information as possible. Without dropheads and the aesthetics of print, Web headlines cannot afford ambiguity. But here are some instances where question headlines are appropriate:

1. Voicing a question that’s prevalent among readers. Readers find headlines like this one accessible and endearing. Similarly, The News & Observer’s site recently ran a story with this headline: “Without Ty, will Tyler set records today?” This was the question of the ACC Tournament, one that even UNC men’s basketball coach, Roy Williams, hadn’t fully answered. Here, it works.

2. Posing a question that is rhetorical and snappy. While I’d prefer a more detailed headline in this case, the question format works just fine. It echoes the exasperation of the readers.

3. Answering the question in the headline. In this case, readers know that if the question applies to them, the article does, as well. The Charlotte Observer uses these headlines well, directing readers to various on-site databases.

In my first collegiate English class, my professor deducted points from one of my essays because of my prolific use of “seems,” and “perhaps.” Below my paper grade he wrote: “If you’re not sure about it, your reader won’t be either.”

When belabored or used inappropriately, headlines written as questions are the “seems to be” of the journalistic realm. Just as an essay’s thesis should be explored in the body of the paper, every time we journalists pose a question, we should answer it to the best of our ability. That’s the nature of our art: anticipating the readers’ needs, knowing which questions they will ask.

So here’s the bottom line: Be judicious. Before posing a question Web-style, justify it. Isn’t it better to state things are better stated?

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