John Brock: Composing newspaper headlines can cause grief for editors

  • Tuesday, February 26, 2013

  • Updated Monday, September 23, 2013 10:52 am

Have we become a society of victims with everyone seeking a way to be offended?

It seems we live in an age when most folks are looking for boogers under every bed. This rationale is not lost on readers of any newspaper. Editors have to be careful in this era of Political Correctness that they choose every word carefully in order not to offend some individual or group. Such was the case regarding two news items that appeared recently in Myrtle Beach’s daily newspaper.

The editor felt compelled (unfairly I thought) to explain the use of a couple of words that appeared in the headlines of two news stories.

It seems that a story about the retirement of the Catholic Pope said simply: “Pope Benedict to quit.” The headline seemed legitimate to me. After all, the Pope did announce that he was giving up the job and retiring. The only thing unusual to me was that it was the first time this has happened in about 500 years. But apparently some readers thought the headline too curt and perhaps disrespectful and that another word except “quit” would have been more appropriate. But, actually, that’s what the Pope did: He quit!

The editor explained the headline writing process of which I am intimately familiar. The headline to a story must succinctly tell the subject of the news article in a manner that will fit the space requirement for the headline. That’s why you see “Xmas” sometimes substituted for “Christmas” because the full word will not fit the space allotted but every year someone objects to that replacement. Simple enough, but apparently not so simple for some folks.

In another Myrtle Beach story listing the nominees for Teacher of the Year, the headline writer composed, “Teachers shoot for yearly honor.” It was a straight-forward headline but some readers were offended in the aftermath of the Newtown school massacre. Do they really believe that the writer was being insensitive to the school tragedy? If so, they are foolish.

Headline composition is a tedious job. As I said, a headline must be composed in a short sentence that tells what the article is about and this is often difficult to do within the confines of space. It’s easier today than when I started years ago. Computers make it much easier to try out different fonts, spacing and lengths until you get the headline to fit. When I first composed headlines, the letters were individually handset and sometimes required much trial and error before you got it right. Oft times, printers had to take a little license when the editor’s headline would not fit. This often let to problems. For instance:

In the town where I was an editor, the owner of a concrete block factory was elected president of the Chamber of Commerce. The editor’s headline was, “Concrete block owner named Chamber president.” It would not fit so the printer, saddled with the job of making the headline fit, came up with: “Block head named Chamber head”. It ran that way much to the embarrassment of everyone concerned.

Through the years I have noted prime examples of headlines written with unintentional meanings. Unlike the Myrtle Beach headlines, here are some real examples of headline-writing malfeasance:

“Federal agents raid gun shop; find weapons”

“Man Struck By Lightning Faces Battery Charge”

“ New Study Of Obesity Looks For Larger test Group”

”Astronaut Takes Blame For Gas In Spacecraft”

“Kids Make Nutritious Snacks”
 
”5 Foot Boa Caught In Toilet; Woman Relived”

 “Chef throws His heart Into Helping Feed Needy”
 
”Local High School Dropouts Cut In Half”

“Here's How You Can Lick Doberman's Leg Sores”

”Hospitals Are Sued By 7-Foot Doctors”

”Dentist Receives Plaque”

“Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers”

“Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over”

“Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant”

“Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures”

“Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges”

After taking a look at these examples of headlines gone wrong, I think the Myrtle Beach editor had no need to apologize for saying the Pope “quit.” Regardless of whatever word is inserted in a headline, in this PC world there will always be someone who claims they are offended.


John Brock is a retired college professor and newspaper editor/publisher who lives in Georgetown County and can be reached by mail at this newspaper or by Email: brock@johnbrock.com. His website is: www.SouthernObserver.com.

Opinions that appear on this page in Letters to the Editor or in columns do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

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