Student guest post: When headlines go too far

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fourth of those posts. Courtney Coats is a senior journalism and English double major at UNC-Chapel Hill. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in book publishing. Her favorite things include children and puppies, and she enjoys losing herself in a book.

It isn’t a secret that the newspaper industry is declining. In October 2010, The New York Times reported that, according to the Audit Bureau, weekday circulation of 535 newspapers over a six-month period was down about 5 percent compared with the same 6 months in 2009. As a result, many newspapers — especially smaller ones for local readers — have to compete with other papers just to survive.

Most copy editors recognize that good headlines are a great way to catch readers’ attention. Unfortunately, the art of writing a headline is not as simple as it would seem; to summarize the main point of the story in a clear and concise manner, often in just a few words, is difficult enough. However, headlines that simply summarize are often not enough to gain new readership or maintain old readership, and many copy editors will go above and beyond to try to liven up their headlines with interesting wording or clever puns.

But there are times when the attempt to gain readers through these over-the-top headlines is not only ineffective but also offensive. On Jan. 9, 2011, newspapers around the country had lead stories on the shooting in Tucson, Ariz. Many of the headlines were about the same, or featured the same information: “Ariz. Rep. shot, 6 die in rampage.” While many headlines sounded similar, they relayed the important information to readers in clear, succinct way.

In contrast, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s lead headline read, “In Arizona, a morning of bullets and death.” While this headline does differentiate the paper from the others it is competing against, it does not necessarily do so in a good way.

It does not focus on the most important information in the story: There is no mention of the representative being shot, nor is there any reference to the six people who were killed.

Furthermore, the headline is insensitive and does not reflect the tone of the story. It reads more like a movie tagline or song lyrics than an admirable headline. For people affected by this tragedy, a less harsh account of the shooting would perhaps be more effective as well as more respectful.

It is true that copy editors must be able to go beyond just the facts to write headlines that grab readers’ attention and accurately portray the point of the story. However, there are certain times when simple, straightforward headlines may be a better option — a tragedy, such as the shooting in Arizona, is the perfect example of such an occasion.

Before writing a headline, a copy editor should not only think of the tone and point of the story, but also of those who will be reading the story and the way in which they will be affected by the information and how it is presented to them. When dealing with difficult news situations, copy editors should be careful not to alienate or offend readers even as they are trying to attract them.


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