Reporters are innocent of writing negative and misleading headlines

I have often received complaints from readers who are unhappy with headlines.

Friday February 26 2016

Kenyans follow news in the Daily Nation. I have often received complaints from readers who are unhappy with headlines, blaming them on the reporters who wrote the stories. PHOTO | GIDEON MAUNDU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Kenyans follow news in the Daily Nation. I have often received complaints from readers who are unhappy with headlines, blaming them on the reporters who wrote the stories. PHOTO | GIDEON MAUNDU | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By PETER MWAURA
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The headline on page 3 of the Daily Nation of February 19 reads: “Eastleigh teacher eyes Sh102m ‘Nobel’ prize.”

The story is about Ayub Mohamud, a teacher at Eastleigh High School in Nairobi, who was among the top teachers shortlisted for the award of Global Teachers’ Prize worth $1 million.

Njeri Muathe was not happy with the headline. “[It] misses the point completely. It’s misleading. It’s not about the money!” she said.

“The ‘Nobel’ prize is not a business venture where you invest and calculate how much money you will get out of the investment. It’s about overcoming challenges; it’s about passion to make a difference in this world. It’s about people living better because of the actions you took.

“And that is exactly what Mr Mohamud has been doing in Eastleigh High School. Enhancing our security and helping young people aspire to live a meaningful life by giving his students lessons on countering religious extremism. Please tell your writer Ouma Wanzala that his heading is amiss. I do acknowledge, however, that the article is well written and informative.”

I have often received complaints from readers who are unhappy with headlines, blaming them on the reporters who wrote the stories.

Reporters, however, do not write headlines. Headlines are written by editors and sub-editors.

There are two main reasons reporters do not write headlines. The first one is necessity.

In producing a newspaper it is not possible for the person who reports the story to write the headline.

The headline needs to fit certain spaces to be allocated to story at the end of the editorial process and the reporter cannot know, at the time he submits his story, what the space allocated will be.

ART OF WRITING
The story needs to be edited and allocated space say, for example, whether it will be the front page splash or three paragraphs on page 10.

So the headline writing comes at the end of the editorial process — long after the reporters have probably gone home.

So the business of writing headlines is left to the editors and sub-editors, who design the layout of the paper and put the stories together to produce the paper.

The second reason is that as a result of that necessity of leaving headline-writing to editors and sub-editors, this has become a semi-specialised function done almost exclusively by specialists, who know how to write headlines within the constraints of the spaces allocated and that can attract the readers’ attention.

In my article of July 16, 2015, “Misleading and biased headlines affect the way many readers remember news”, I noted how readers can be influenced by headlines in their understanding of the news.

And because headlines are so important in the understanding of a story, it is critical that they accurately convey the content of the story, while at the same time grabbing the attention of the readers.

Headline writers are sometimes tempted to make the headline more dramatic, more sensational, more controversial, and more important than the actual story.

The temptation to exaggerate or blow up a minor aspect of the story in order to capture the readers’ interest must be acknowledged but must always be resisted.

So let me conclude with a rather cynical view of how some editors view news and headline writing.

CENTER OF THE STORY

In the 1993 novel, The Shipping News, by American author Annie Proulx, which was in 2001 made into a movie, Billy, a newspaper publisher, gives Quole, a rather pathetic reporter, a lesson in news and headline writing.

Billy: “It’s finding the centre of your story, the beating heart of it, that’s what makes a reporter. You have to start by making up some headlines. You know: short, punchy, dramatic headlines. Now, have a look, (points at dark clouds at the horizon) what do you see? Tell me the headline.”

Quole: “Horizon fills with dark clouds?”

Billy: “Imminent storm threatens village.”

Quole: “But what if no storm comes?”

Billy: “Village spared from deadly storm.”

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