There is a sense of anti-climax when one is forced to re-explore and re-examine a topic over a considerably long span of time. I looked at the importance of headlines in my column, “What’s in a headline” (February 11, 2013). The focus of that column was on editorialising headlines in the age of 24x7 digital platforms.

A headline became the topic of discussion last week when this newspaper carried a second deck headline for the front-page report, “Narmada dam to be higher by 17 m” (June 13, 2014). It read: “Gujarat exalted over NCA decision; activists worried”. The first part was incorrect. The report did not suggest it. Nor did the connected reports — carried inside — back it. We carried a correction on June 14, 2014. A more direct “Gujarat government welcomes decision, activists worried”, would have served the purpose well. The headline writer wanted to use the word “elated” which became “exalted.”A simple word is the best friend of any journalist working in the desk.

Never mislead

The problems posed by headlines are not restricted to The Hindu. A column by fellow Readers’ Editor, Chris Elliot of The Guardian, talked about a misleading headline on a sensitive story. On November 27, 2011, he wrote: “Headlines and subheadings are there to attract and lead a reader into a story, but they should never mislead about what is in the text. The Guardian broke that rule in an acutely sensitive area of reporting about the investigation into the death of Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police on 4 August 2011 triggered riots in London and across the rest of England.”

More than half a century ago, the British Editor, Arthur Christiansen, gave the definition of an effective headline: “Good headlines are written in vigorous, conversational, idiomatic language. Good headlines should be capable of being read aloud — which the mind does subconsciously.” Many have talked about the challenges of writing a headline that gives crucial information in an attractive manner within the confines of the layout.

Six broad principles

Sir Harold Evans, whom I had quoted in my column last year, maintains that to write a good headline a journalist needs more than just a knack. According to Evans, the headline writer must employ all the arts of compression and allusion to make immediate sense, to attract the reader, and to tell the news. He offers a detailed lesson on headline writing in his Essential English: For Journalists, Editors and Writers based on six broad principles — 1) Foolproof techniques for writing headlines that fit the available space. 2) How to compress ideas and still be accurate. 3) When to use capitals and when not to. 4) The supremacy of the active verb, present tense. 5) How to write headlines that reflect the mood as well as content. 6) When the page should change to make way for a really good headline.

With web readership growing in an exponential manner, headline writing becomes a much more challenging task. Chris Elliot touched upon this issue in one of his recent columns on how headlines can be more easily misunderstood online. There he shared a useful observation from Chris Moran, who plays a big role in optimising web traffic for The Guardian: “Even before we worry about optimisation of headlines, our subs need to consider the most profound difference between print and web — the almost endless number of places in which headlines will appear out of context. RSS feeds, Twitter and search results are just a few examples. Therefore, we strive to tell the story of a piece clearly in every headline and aim to give readers all the help and information they need to make sure they are clicking on something of interest to them.” I think headline writers must keep this in mind because their headlines are no longer meant only for print.

Enormous responsibility

The headline writers and other editors who collectively represent the desk of a newspaper have an enormous responsibility. They are the back room controllers of facts, accuracy, style and presentation. They will never get the profile or public recognition of a good reporter. Having been a reporter for the major part of my journalistic career, I am indebted to the desk for taking care of my copy. At some level, they are the selfless spine on which the journalistic body is constructed. Part of their responsibility is to create a vibrant language in the headlines that will not only attract readers’ attention but also retain their interest in the great stories the newspaper tells its readers. It has to be a quest. It has to be a constant search for those magical four or five words for each and every story to make one curious to know more.

Let me conclude with a wry observation of Gilbert Keith Chesterton: “If I choose to head an article ‘An Inquiry into the conditions of Mycenaean Civilisation in the Heroic Epoch, with Special Reference to the Economic and Domestic Functions of Women Before and After the Conjectural Date of the Argive Expedition against Troy’, — if, I say, I choose for my article some snappy little title like that, I really have no right to complain if (when I send it to the Chicago Daily Scoop), they alter it to ‘How Helen Did the Housekeeping’. “

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in