Head cases

The future is electronic, and you’ve been told. Newspapers, with their feckless extravagance at paying “editors” to verify factual accuracy and make texts intelligible, are just obsolete. They might as well walk away into the snow and die, leaving the world to its bright online future.

I thought, before I’m freeze-dried and placed in a glass case in the Newseum, to devote this, my 500th post, to one aspect of this brave new world in which copy editors have some expertise: headline writing. Imagine my surprise at the discovery from an examination of today’s stories at CNN, MSNBC and Fox News that the new-era headline writers resemble nothing so much as the hacks of yesteryear. Examples:

Christian families fleeing Iraqi city tops 1,000

Apparently the online model does not protect one from errors in subject-verb agreement.

Mother’s papers tear MLK children apart

Heavy reliance on abbreviations as headline shorthand might be excused here; MLK for Martin Luther King is probably intelligible to many readers. But unless you know that mother’s papers is a kind of synecdoche for dispute over the disposition of their mother’s papers — that is, unless you already know what the story is about — this headline does not give you clear information.

Caylee’s mom indicted, arrested after car swap

Mom for mother is another aged headline convention, especially in tabloids. You already knew who Caylee was, right? You’ve been following the twists of this story about a missing child for weeks, right? Wonder what the car swap was and why it led to an indictment? Guess you’ll have to read the story.

Madonna, Guy Ritchie reportedly to split

“Reportedly.” Who reports? Reportedly to do something and said to do something are among the oldest crutches in the hack’s tool chest.

Mr. and Mrs. Madonna ‘ready to divorce’

Even better, an unattributed quote — again, who says so? — linked to a coy reference to Guy Ritchie as a mere annex to Madonna.

Remote-control Hubble fix to begin

Animate the inanimate. Just as Coretta King’s papers are tearing her children apart, so does the Hubble repair get under way without human agency.

Scoop: McCain wants Palin on ‘SNL’? When I was a lad, a scoop meant you had actual information, not a question.

Gray voters not reliably red

Some credit should be given for the wordplay, but red state/blue state references have been a cliche for much of the past eight years.

Obama, McCain prepare for final debate

You don’t have to pick up a print version to find a dull headline that tells you nothing. It might be news if they weren’t preparing for the debate. Of course, there is some utility in telegraphing to the reader that since the story is about an event that has not yet occurred, there is probably little or no actual information to be had.

CIA tactics endorsed in secret memos

Passive voice leaves out the who. We knew mistakes were made. Tell us who made them.

‘Sex for Secrets’ Poison Needle Spy Gets 5 Years

Two references to this spy case about which I have not a clue.

Tough Times Test Character, Relationships

D’ya think?

VIDEO: Fix for Constipation

Let’s just give this one a miss.

What I’ve found is that these news Web sites have chained themselves to a format that dooms them to an elliptical headlinese as constrained as any print design. One-line headlines of half a dozen words will inevitably depend on abbreviations, opaque allusions and all the irritating shortcuts to which print newspapers have resorted for decades. Of the three, only Fox News offers opportunities to write a deck — a secondary headline that expands on the sense of the main head.

I have seen the future, and a lot of it resembles the past.



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