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Headline Writing . Crack Found on Governor's Daughter. Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says. Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers. Is there a ring of debris around Uranus?. Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over. Miners Refuse to Work after Death.

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Something Went Wrong in

Jet Crash, Expert Says

Police Begin Campaign to

Run Down Jaywalkers

Red Tape Holds

Up New Bridges

Astronaut Takes Blame for

Gas in Spacecraft

the greatest headline ever written

Headless body found in topless bar

– New York Post

a study in contrasts
A Study in Contrasts
  • William J. Brink, a former managing editor of The Daily News of New York was responsible for one of the most memorable headlines in American journalism:
a study in contrasts21
A Study in Contrasts
  • The corresponding headline in The New York Times that day:
the science of headline writing
The Science of Headline Writing
  • No. 1 Rule: Headlines must tell the reader what the story's about
  • Headlines must be accurate
  • Headlines must be fair
  • Headlines must fit and fill the space allotted
the science of headline writing23
The Science of Headline Writing
  • The headline’s tone must be consistent with the nature of the story
  • The headline’s tone must be consistent with the personality of the publication
  • The headline can't say more than the story says
    • In other words, the story must sustain the headline
  • The headline needs to persuade the reader to read the story.
the science of headline writing24
The Science of Headline Writing
  • The issue of what words we use and how we use them in headlines is important.
  • It is often a subject of a newspaper’s ombudsman’s weekly column.
  • Take, for example, a column by Pam Platt in the Louisville Courier-Journal.
the science of headline writing25
The Science of Headline Writing
  • She notes that more than one reader complained about the following headline over a story about Cindy Sheehan:
  • " 'Sympathetic Bush says leaving Iraq is wrong' …
  • The headline, one reader complained:
    • “paints an entirely different and misleading picture of the Cindy Sheehan story.
    • Obviously, if the President was in fact sympathetic, he would have talked with her on the day she arrived. . . .
    • Once again, The Courier has taken sides in the most insidious of ways. Painting the story via the headings. Shame on you."
the science of headline writing26
The Science of Headline Writing
  • In another headline readers criticize, the main body of Lutherans in the USA was labeled “a 'sect.'
  • I know it's a handy, short word with a vaguely religious connotation, but there's no way any branch of the Lutherans, who originated the Reformation 'way back when, meet any but the remotest definition of the word.''
the science of headline writing27
The Science of Headline Writing
  • Platt interviewed John McIntyre, former president of the American Copy Editors Society and an assistant managing editor at the Baltimore Sun.
  • He likened writing headlines to a combination of playing Scrabble and completing a crossword puzzle.
the science of headline writing28
The Science of Headline Writing
  • Asked about those headlines, he said:
  • " 'Sympathetic Bush' would trouble me because it imputes an emotion or attitude, suggesting that we know something about the inner workings of someone else's mind.
    • 'Bush expresses sympathy, stays firm on Iraq' or something of the sort would be more neutral and factual.''
the science of headline writing29
The Science of Headline Writing
  • "Calling Lutherans a 'sect' probably does carry a negative charge. . . .
    • 'Denomination' is a long word for a headline –
    • I sympathize with the copy editor -- but 'sect' reads as 'faction,' though not as opprobrious as 'cult' would have been.
    • 'Religion' would also be wrong, because Lutheranism is a denomination within a religion.''
john mcintyre on headline writing
John McIntyre on Headline Writing
  • Q: What should readers reasonably expect from headlines?
  • McIntyre:
  • Accuracy, clarity and precision.
  • Liveliness and originality are important to capturing the reader's interest, but they are secondary to accuracy.
john mcintyre on headline writing31
John McIntyre on Headline Writing
  • Q: What challenges do copy editors face in meeting those expectations?
  • McIntyre:
  • There is seldom enough time to polish and refine headlines as much as copy editors would like.
  • And the lack of time also comes up against the fundamental challenge: distilling the sense of an entire article into half a dozen words.
john mcintyre on headline writing32
John McIntyre on Headline Writing
  • Q: What are the uppermost cardinal rules of good headline writing?
  • McIntyre:
  • Try to follow the vocabulary and syntax of conversational English insofar as you can.
  • Avoid headlinese ("Solons slate parley") and wretched, obvious wordplay ("purr-fect" for any story about cats).
headline checklist
Headline Checklist

After you have written a headline, ask:

  • Does it tell the news clearly?
  • If it's a news story, does the headline contain the latest developments?
  • If it's a feature story, does it convey the basic sense of the story?
  • Is it accurate and informative?
          • From the American Press Institute
headline checklist34
Headline Checklist
  • Is it compelling in approach, news angle and impact?
  • Does it contain concrete nouns and active-voice, present-tense verbs?
  • Does the tone fit the story, so that when there is emotion or a human element, irony or humor it is reflected in the head?
headline checklist35
Headline Checklist
  • Does it avoid the obstacles to clarity?
  • Jargon
  • Cliches
  • Slang
  • Headlinese
  • Forced phrases
  • Abbreviations
  • Acronyms
  • Obscure names and puns: Serious news stories should not contain any puns.
headline checklist36
Headline Checklist
  • Does it have words or meanings that are as precise as possible?
  • Does it make each word count by being direct and dense with information?
  • Does it play fair by trying to reflect both sides of a story if an opposing view exists, or at least avoid overemphasizing one point of view?
headline checklist37
Headline Checklist
  • Does it avoid danger of libel, take caution with sensitive material and include attribution when necessary?
  • Does it include the "where" when important? Does it signal any local involvement in the news when it may not be clear otherwise?
  • Does it avoid names that may not be well known?
  • Does it avoid elements of bad taste, double meanings, exaggeration and sensationalism?
headline checklist things to avoid
Headline Checklist – Things to Avoid
  • Inappropriate language or a tone that doesn't fit the story.
  • Exaggerating conflict, danger, criticism, etc.
  • Editorialization or words that suggest an opinion of the head-writer.
  • A "negative" head using the word "not.“
  • Conclusions the story doesn't back up.
headline checklist things to avoid39
Headline Checklist – Things to Avoid
  • Inappropriate assumptions or interpretations.
  • Piled-up adjectives or other modifiers that detract from clarity.
  • A "label head," unless omitting the verb helps the head or the count is so short that a "book title" head is the only way out.
  • Assumptions that the reader has been following the story daily.
  • Obscure names that readers won't instantly recognize.
headline checklist things to avoid40
Headline Checklist – Things to Avoid
  • Undue familiarity, often by using a person's first name.
  • Abbreviations or acronyms that are not instantly recognizable.
  • Jargon, which clouds the meaning for readers.
  • Cliches, which are neither creative nor compelling.
  • Meanings the reader won't "get" until the story is read.
headline checklist things to avoid41
Headline Checklist – Things to Avoid
  • Echoing the lede or stealing the punchline.
  • A hard-news head based on facts far down in the story.
  • Puns in heads on serious news stories.
  • Putting first-day heads on second-day stories.
  • Using "question" or "colon" heads routinely.