The proliferation of digital platforms is posing a major challenge to the print media today to be relevant, interesting and true to its core values and cardinal principles. This challenge sometimes takes a toll right at the beginning — the headlines.

Headlines are in reality a naming process, a process that gives an identity to a story and invites the reader to its content. The naming has to be precise. Academicians try to be precise in categorising social and political events. For instance, while writing on the recent Arab Spring, Tariq Ramadan, who teaches at University of London and University of Oxford, termed the developments as “uprising”, and located them between revolution and revolt. His contention is that if the present developments are carried to their fullest extent, this can become revolution. He further states: “On the other hand, if it is incomplete, manipulated, or if it fails, it will have expressed the peoples’ aspirations but not concretised their hopes. To speak of ‘uprisings’ is to convey cautious optimism, and to affirm that the revolts we have witnessed are already established facts.”

One of the influential editors of our time and a journalism teacher of repute, Harold Evans, says: “The difficulty in writing headlines is precisely in conveying in a few attractive words the essence of a complicated set of facts…The headline gives emphasis to a few words in bold type and every word must be weighed. There is a double responsibility on headline writers. They have to attract as many readers as they can into the text of the story, or condemn it to unread obscurity; but even where they fail they have an effect, for many who do not read the story nonetheless retain an impression from scanning the headline.”

In this context, I looked at some of the headlines that appeared in the front page of this newspaper last month, which readers felt were editorialising. The contentious headlines were:

1. Kidney trade reaps grim harvest (Jan. 8, 2013)

2. Godman’s unholy sermon on rape sparks outrage (Jan. 8, 2013)

3. Congress 2.0 targets youth and middle classes (Jan. 19, 2013)

4. Congress prince crowned vice-president (Faithful’s clamour finds fulfilment at Jaipur) (Jan. 20, 2013)

5. Coronation over, Rahul prepares party for change (Jan. 21, 2013)

In my opinion, the second and the third headlines are statement of facts. The thoughtless utterances of Asaram Bapu provoked angry retorts not just from ordinary citizens but many religious leaders too joined hands in condemning his statement. The Congress party’s strategy was to attract youth and middle class, and the story was about the party’s strategy and I do not see anything amiss in this headline also.

The first headline on kidney trade is not a neutral one by any stretch of imagination, but still I do not think it was very inappropriate as it dealt with one of the darker sides of our society and our own failings. Once in a while, a stark headline to highlight the underbelly of our society will not hurt.

Going beyond telling bald information

However, I do feel that the two headlines on Rahul Gandhi’s elevation was nothing but editorialising. I shared my opinion with the Editor about these headlines and his response is worth sharing with the readers. He said: “Headline writers in newspapers must increasingly grapple with a problem that the evolution of new media technologies has thrust upon them: how to tell readers in the morning something that goes beyond the bald information they have already got from television news and the internet the previous day. A conventional label headline (Eg. ‘Rahul Gandhi becomes Congress vice-president,’ ‘Asaram bapu blames victim for rape’) runs the risk of looking stale for any reader who has surfed the net or TV. What we try to do, therefore, especially on the front page, is to avoid giving ‘yesterday’s headlines’ the next morning. This means being creative and analytical in trying to take an old story forward by providing a new element or perspective in the headline or blurb. Sometimes, the exercise can produce a headline that conveys an opinion or view but the effort is always to ensure that when this occurs, the facts in the story warrant such a treatment.”

He also concurred that use of royal metaphors in the case of Rahul Gandhi for two days in succession should have been avoided. He went further and said, “the use of ‘coronation’ is problematic in a strictly technical sense: princes are not coronated!”.

Probably headline writers mull over these words of Evans as they put the pages to bed: “Accuracy, intelligibility and vigour are the requirements, and any newspaper which is careless with its headline writing is careless with its own purpose and vitality… Where every headline goes unerringly to the point with precision or wit, the whole newspaper comes alive. The art of the headline lies in imagination and vocabulary; the craft lies in accuracy of content, attractiveness of appearance, and practicality.”

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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