If information is what you sell, as liberal newspapers assert, self-contradiction can become ruinous if you allow it to become a habit. A striking example occurred on page one of the Daily Nation on Wednesday, where we read that “…violence in a Kenyan home is … nothing new…”
Though that is true, it raised one question. If an event is “nothing new”, how can it make it to page one of an organ for which what is “new” — the news — is the stock-in-trade, the criterion number one for inclusion? If the item was “nothing new”, how did it make it to the prime news page of the region’s leading newspaper?
There are, of course, other criteria for choosing a story for page one. They include important policy statements, especially from State House, and tragic road accidents — though, in Kenya, the latter have become a daily occurrence ever since Mzee Jomo Kenyatta (meaning quite well) — sanctioned the matatu as a mode of national public transport soon after independence.
Since then, however, only in a manner of speaking, do we call “news” any matatu tragedy in Tanzania, Uganda and especially Kenya.
In general, whenever almost the same event takes place daily — often many times a day — it should very soon lose its excitement and general news value. That matatu tragedies claim the lives of our most loved ones is the only reason such tragedies do not lose their news value.
For another instance, what the President says or does is frequently a candidate for page one. When I edited The Kenya Times — the erstwhile ruling party organ — State House often obliged us to put on page one even stories which the editors of non-party newspapers would readily have thrown into the wastepaper basket because such stories had no socially useful information value whatsoever.
The question, then, remains: For what socially beneficial reason did a newspaper use the above story on page one? I am obliged to ask because I know that wooing the reader, including through an attractive headline, is an important daily concern of a newspaper. Was the above headline a socially useful information tool or was it merely an excited sales gimmick?
PUT OFF READER
In that context, therefore, a newspaper sub-editor must be extraordinarily careful never to print any headline so self-contradictory as to confuse or anger or, in some other way, put off any reader.
To be quite sure, that is easier said than done. The difficulty in writing a newspaper headline lies in that a headline must be both quite powerful and yet without being offensive to anybody.
For those whose mother tongue is not English, headlines pose what the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called “especial problems”, first because a headline requires you to pack a whole lot of meaning into the smallest number of words and, then, because English, the European language in which the circumstances oblige most East Africans to write creatively, is not the mother tongue of any of East Africa’s journalists and other writers.