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OPINION: Insert bad headline here

Published on

George Mathewson

An old friend tells the tale of a reporter who covered an event one weekend only to have the following headline appear over his story:

“10,000 attend Grand Bend burgerfest.”

The problem? When typing out burgerfest someone dropped the letter “r.”

Headlines are meant to quickly draw attention to a story and suggest what’s to come, and a good one is a very fine thing indeed. But in the news production process headlines are often treated like an afterthought, something slapped on at the last minute by an editor. Far too often, reporters get berated by readers for their editor’s crappy headlines.

When the Tonight Show was hosted by Jay Leno it had a weekly feature highlighting egregious typos that made it into print. The segment was a particular delight to me because, of course, I neve make mestakes.

But I have kept a folder of local newspaper bloopers over the years. Entries include the banal – “Optimist pubic speaking contest” – and the cringe-worthy – “Powwow attacks hundreds of people” – and many more that should never appear in a family newspaper.

Then there are headlines so compelling you can’t do anything but continue reading. Like this one from 2014: “Thief distracts staff by squirting her breast milk.”

The story, about a mother in central Germany who devised a novel robbery method, went global. Described as having a “robust” figure, the woman walked into a pharmacy, asked to buy a breast pump, then lifted her top and squirted milk at the pharmacist.

In the ensuing confusion she walked away with $140 from the cash register. The owner noticed the missing money only after the day’s revenue was counted.

Or this one from October: “Saskatchewan town votes to change ‘Land of Rape and Honey’ slogan.”

Seems the town of Tisdale had used the phrase for nearly 60 years and featured it on a roadway welcome sign. But residents feared visitors would find the sexual assault connotation offensive.

Rape is rapeseed, a crop that was a precursor of modern canola and canola oil.

But the final word on headlines comes from the film The Shipping News. In one scene, the publisher of a small Newfoundland newspaper is explaining to a novice reporter, played by Kevin Spacey, that to get to the heart of a story he needs to think in short, punchy headlines.

Pointing to a band of cloud over the ocean the publisher asks the newcomer what he sees:

Reporter: Horizon fills with dark clouds?

Publisher: Imminent storm threatens village.

Reporter: But what if no storm comes?

Publisher: Village spared from deadly storm.

 

 

 

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