Student guest post: Headline headaches — is anyone paying attention?

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Settie Amini is a senior undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. When she is not wrangling with graphic design and multimedia projects, she spends her time as a fearless foodie and devoted reader of books. She is always looking for the next big (or little) adventure.

For the level of importance most journalists assign to writing proper headlines, mainstream news sources often publish headlines that are misleading and incomprehensible.

For example, one of the big stories on Jan. 20 featured Carlina White, a woman who found her parents 23 years after being kidnapped. Several news publications that covered the story made some questionable choices when writing the accompanying headlines.

The New York Daily News chose the baffling headline “Kidnap Miracle.” As a reader, I learn nothing from this headline. The publication included a descriptive deck, which is helpful for clarification. But that is no excuse for writing a main headline that insinuates there is some way to abduct miracles.

The Daily News is a tabloid that people evaluate using different journalistic standards than most newspapers, so one could argue that sensational and unconventional headlines appear on the cover frequently. Tabloids, however, are not alone in choosing questionable headlines; many reputable newspapers make the same mistake. For example, The New York Times published an article in 2009 entitled “South Africa Is Seen to Lag in H.I.V. Fight.”

The first two paragraphs of the story reveal that the headline is inaccurate and only vaguely associated with the story. The article covers the effectiveness of circumcision in slowing the spread of AIDS and states that South Africa is the only African country to have a circumcision clinic of its kind. The headline directly contradicts the information provided in the story, altering readers’ perceptions of South Africa’s campaign against the spread of HIV.

While human error is inevitable in any journalistic environment, mistakes and confusing word choice in headlines have a particularly harmful effect on a publication’s reputation. Many people only read headlines and skim the accompanying stories, so headline errors often have the greatest potential to misinform or deceive readers.

News publications need to be especially careful when writing headlines if they want to maintain their readers’ trust. On the bright side, many questionable headlines add some needed humor to the serious business of news writing.


One Comment

  1. Here’s another good one for you:
    FBI: Woman confessed to snatching NY baby in 1987

    So did she confess in 1987 or commit the crime in 1987?

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