From The Readers' Editor | Readers' Editor

When headlines fail

When I once used the metaphor of a Sisyphean task to explain my job and how it how often involves pointing out the same error again and again, a reader helpfully pointed out that my job is not as unrewarding as that of the king of Corinth because an ombudsman’s interventions lead to course correction and help build an institutional memory to guard against certain types of recurring mistakes.

No royal metaphors

In 2013, I pointed out in a column, “What’s in a headline” (February 11), the perils of editorialising in news headlines. Two headlines that were discussed at length in that column were: “Congress prince crowned vice-president” (January 20, 2013) and “Coronation over, Rahul prepares party for change” (January 21, 2013). Among the issues I had flagged then included the use of royal metaphors to describe transitions in a political party. This negates the will of the party members who endorse the elevation, and does not give a complete picture of the party dynamics. When the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general council met to elect M.K. Stalin as the president of the party on August 28, 2018, the headline of the report read: “Stage set for Stalin’s coronation today”. Interestingly, the report was free of editorialising but the headline writers could not resist the cliché, which is not in tune with the governing idea of maintaining a line between news and views in this newspaper.

Following the TACT test

In journalism, the rules for headlines vary from one section to another. Headlines in news pages are expected to be factually correct and match the tone of the report. Feature headlines have some leeway for wordplay. Let me repeat the importance of the TACT test to make my point here. Merlin R. Mann, a journalism teacher in the U.S., has come up with a TACT (taste, attractiveness, clarity and truth) test for headlines. He expects every subeditor to ask these questions of each headline: “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?” He says a ‘no’ to any of these questions is a veto, and urges the desk to rethink the headline.

Rethinking headlines

Sometimes the desk tends to repeat a phrase that fits into the design template of the story without realising that this formulaic response is not any different from an algorithm that is used in Artificial Intelligence-driven journalism. One can understand repeating an interesting headline that captures the imagination of the readers, but how can one explain the repetition of a headline that did not make sense in the first place?

Even sportswriters, known for their expressive writing, fall for formulaic traps that undermine their work. For instance, let us look at some of the headlines or second-deck descriptions in the sports section in recent times: “Indian grapplers settle for silver in three of the five weight categories”; “Ankita battles, but settles for bronze”; “Shri Nivetha settles for bronze”. In sporting events, one “settles” only for a draw. All other outcomes are products of intense competition, a display of skill, and endurance. The use of the words “settles for” robs the achievement of the sportspersons who reach the second and third spot only after sweating it out. The phrase “settles for” has a patronising tone that erases the enchantment of competitive sports.

It was heartening the see that a major story based on data extracted from January 1999 from the records of the Supreme Court, and published on August 26, was given a matter-of-fact headline (“Major cases and the collegium: a study”) and a clear explanatory second deck (“How CJIs involved senior colleagues in benches of 3 judges and more”). There was no editorialising either in the story or in the headline. The rigorous presentation of facts and figures played an illuminating role without the help of those journalistic crutches called adjectives.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 2:01:25 PM |

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