by Roger Pynn
The purpose of newspaper headlines is to capture reader attention … to target reader interests by telling them briefly what a story is about. Headline writing is an art. Editing them is a responsibility.
Having sat at a copy desk at a newspaper once or twice in my career, I remember being trained to tell the story concisely by drawing the most important element from the story and writing a headline that fit the available space and told the reader what to expect below.
When newspapers either don’t take the time or no longer have the resources to assure that headlines are doing that, the threads of journalistic responsibility begin to unwind because headlines are often the only thing most readers take with them. Many people take the headline and nothing else to their conversations around the water cooler, or use them as the fuel for their calls to the sewer of the airwaves (talk radio) or their posts on the sewer of the Internet (newspaper comment boards). Uninformed, they simply parrot what they saw atop a story they never read.
Here’s a blatant example of a newspaper not editing headlines.
On what you might now call the “op-obit page” of the Orlando Sentinel today is a headline that you’d expect to see on the “op-ed page” … one decrying rascally Republicans as uncaring about those who might benefit from the relief of misery through legalization of marijuana. (Personal note: I think we ought to legalize marijuana, although very carefully, but this commentary has nothing to do with that.)
The headline (“GOP’s compassionate conservatism missing on medical marijuana”) is nowhere reflected in the story. No one is quoted as alleging Republicans are not compassionate. Clearly, whoever wrote the headline saw an opportunity to make a political point or two.
When newspapers allow this lack of quality control, is it any wonder why people distrust the news media? All of us in the world of public relations have to deal with reporters on a regular basis, but we can’t blame them for headlines like this … written by invisible headline writers on the copy desk.
A better headline for this story might have been “Sides split on wording of medical marijuana amendment.” That would have protected the reporter, Jim Saunders of News Service of Florida, from the ridicule of readers who often don’t realize that reporters don’t write the headlines. By the way, on its website, News Service of Florida’s headline was far more appropriate: “COURT FACES SHARP DIVIDE ON MEDICAL MARIJUANA ISSUE.”
Interestingly, I can’t find the story anywhere on OrlandoSentinel.com.