Readers' Editor

The art and science of headlines

CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan

CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan   | Photo Credit: V_V_KRISHNAN

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This column, at one level, has been an exploration about the media, on media law, regulation, freedom of expression, the right to information, the right to be heard, and the democratic dividends that come from empowering marginal voices, with the aim of giving a context in which the media ecology operates. At another level, I address specific issues concerning only this newspaper. Apart from issues of accuracy and diversity, there are errors that creep in when the deadline pressure takes its toll. There is an inescapable circularity in performing my task as the Readers’ Editor. I had stressed the importance of headlines in two of my earlier columns — “What’s in a headline” (February 11, 2013) and “Those magical four or five words” (June 16, 2014).

Last Monday, this newspaper carried an interesting story about a seer in Punjab, Ashutosh Maharaj, whose body has been kept in a freezer since January this year. There is a deep divide between the judiciary, which had ordered a cremation, and a section of the seer’s followers, who were expecting a ‘resurrection’. There are no issues with the story itself. It gave a quick background, the continuation of Z-category security to the seer’s body lying in ‘samadhi’ as he was on the hitlist of Sikh secessionists and spoke of what supporters were doing within the ashram’s premises. But the problem was with the headline: “Disciples await seer’s resurrection.” The headline failed to maintain the critical distance from the expectations of the followers. Some of the conclusions a reader could have drawn from this headline are that the newspaper too believes in the idea of resurrection and that resurrection is an inevitability. The story did not hint at any of these supernatural possibilities. It was a field report that recorded the two contesting narratives that are at play in Jalandhar and elaborated on the steps taken by the state machinery to resolve this crisis in a peaceful manner.

Headline writing exemplifies the craft of journalism. It is a unique blend of science and art. It is science when it comes to content, facts and accuracy. There is no place for ambivalence. It has to be precise. On the other hand, it is an art that, through four or five words, makes a story inviting to readers. An elegant, factually correct headline attracts more readers to a particular story. It saves a reporter’s hard work from being consigned to what Harold Evans calls unread obscurity. The desk has a dual role: it plays a gatekeeping role in terms of fact checking, accuracy, language, grammar and style and it also plays the role of an inviting host to the readers to the world of news and features.

TACT test

In performing this dual role, it may be useful for the desk to constantly deploy the TACT test suggested by journalism schools. The abbreviation TACT stands for “taste, attractiveness, clarity and truth.” Journalism schools expect the desk to ask these questions of each and every headline. Merlin R. Mann, a journalism teacher in the United States, has given a good checklist that may be helpful. He says that a subeditor must subject his or her headlines to closer interrogation and ask the following probing questions: “Is it in good taste? Anything offensive in any way? Can anything be taken a wrong way? Does it attract the reader’s attention? How can it be improved without sacrificing accuracy? Does it communicate clearly, quickly? Any confusion? Any odd words, double meanings? Is it accurate, true? Proper words used? Is the thrust of subject-verb true?” For Prof. Mann, a single ‘no’ to any of the listed questions is a veto. He says one ‘no’ represents thousands of readers and hence the subeditor must start over and rethink the headline from the beginning.

One of the headlines before the opening of Parliament’s winter session, “Opposition may corner government together on many issues” (November 24, 2014) is a case of flawed word order. It would have been more elegant and to the point if it had read: “Opposition to come together to corner government on multiple issues.” The New York Times’ manual of style and usage has a very useful listing on the importance of the sequence of words. Sub-titled “word order matters, too,” that list reads: “Only she tasted rutabaga means that no one else did. She tasted only the rutabaga means she tasted nothing else. She only tasted the rutabaga means she merely nibbled.”

There are also headlines which become formulaic in their approach and with little variance in substance and style. Over a period of time, this ready-to-use formula mutes the potency of the story. For instance, health stories tend to use the phrase “improving the odds” in a very predictable manner. On November 20, 2014, there was a story on in vitro fertilisation for which the headline was “Improving the odds of a successful IVF pregnancy.” Two days after that, another health story had a similar headline: “Improving odds against stomach cancers in Chennai.” These headlines may not help improve the odds in favour of readership.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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