Student guest post: News can lose clarity on Twitter

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Amanda Davis is a senior editing and graphic design major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She hopes to edit for a newspaper or magazine after graduation. If she’s not jamming out to Spanish pop, she’s by the window trying to create a Van Gogh masterpiece of her own.

Writing headlines for social media, such as Twitter, is often a precarious matter. One must be concise, because of character limits on each Tweet, yet grab the readers’ attention so that they will be willing to click on it for further information.

More importantly, the headline needs to be understood without additional context, such as pictures. Too often than not, headlines are written that give across the wrong idea, use sensationalist tactics or don’t give enough information to understand to what they refer.

BBC Global News on Twitter is notorious for just that. On Feb. 16, 2010, BBC tweeted, “First day on the job,” followed by a link to its website. How are readers supposed to know if they are interested in knowing more about this if they don’t even know to whom BBC is referring?

News media post headlines on Twitter to get more activity on their main websites. This story would have received many more hits if BBC had used the headline it had on its homepage, “Jay Carney: The new face of the White House.” Jay Carney is the new White House press secretary, so it makes sense that he would be considered the “new face” of the White House. It’s a clever headline that is concise yet still provides enough detail so that the reader understands the point of the story.

Bad Headlines, a Twitter user, Retweets bad headlines that newspapers have published on Twitter. One of those headlines was “Crew laughed before fatal crash,” which was tweeted on Oct. 5, 2009. This was a story about three members of a flight crew that died when their helicopter crashed. The cockpit recording revealed that moments before the helicopter crashed, crew members were laughing and having a good time.

I don’t understand how this headline is sensitive to the deaths of these three men or how it gives any newsworthy information. The article goes on to talk about the lack of safety and possible qualification issues of those on board. These issues would have been more relevant to discuss in the headline. A more effective headline would read, “Fatal helicopter crash questions crew qualifications.”

If newspapers are going to use social media as a way to broaden their reader base and increase hits on their websites, they need to pay attention to how they word their posts. Just as the print headline might not work for their headline on their newspaper’s online version, the headline on their website might not work for Twitter where pictures, videos and slideshows don’t accompany the posts.

Headlines for social media should draw readers without being sensationalistic and understandable without further context. Although news of a crew laughing before a fatal crash probably received many hits to a website, it wasn’t fair to the subjects of the article and their grieving families. It was mere propaganda meant to benefit the BBC without regard to the actual news of the story.