« On this date | Main | Last and past »

Headline here

A letter from Polly Thornton published this morning in The Baltimore Sun defends the integrity of the linemen who have been struggling all week to restore electrical power after Hurricane Irene:

I felt outrage when reading a recent headline in The Sun describing the efforts to restore power ("Four days without juice, too much time spent in Panera," Sept. 1). The headline seemed to indicate that the workers were wasting their time sitting in a restaurant. These linemen and Baltimore Gas & Electric workers are working double shifts day after day and deserve all the credit they can get.

I edited that article and wrote that headline. If Ms. Thornton had read beyond the headline before resorting to pen or keyboard to express her outrage, she would have noticed that the article is about the ways in which residents were coping with outages. There are no linemen in the story.

(Or perhaps she did, and was so keen to vent that she ignored the content.)

This is the lonely life of the headline writer. You work on a text of 600, 800, 1,200 words, knowing that you will have six to eight words with which to distill its central meaning. You know that you will be elliptical and telegraphic—that can’t be avoided. You work with headline conventions—dropping articles, substituting a comma for “and”—that you hope readers will recognize. You struggle to reduce ambiguity and avoid double entendres.

You do this knowing that there will be some readers who will read the headline, interpreting it according to their presuppositions, and never read the article. There will be some, perhaps, who will perversely misinterpret it. And there will be many who will read into it some sinister agenda.

Writing headlines is a mug’s game.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:28 AM | | Comments (6)


I spent 30 years in the newspaper game, more than half of that as an editor. I feel your pain, but I read the hed the same way the reader did. I didn't have the benefit of having the copy under the hed, and I didn't even know that Panera was a restaurant. I thought it might be the name a section of the city, or a nearby township. I DON'T disagree with you; I've been there.

Ouch, you have my sympathy. Still, it's kind of an interesting misreading as the reader seems to have tried to interpret the two parts of the headline in a logical relationship. Which they are, but it's a different relationship than the one that occurred to the reader. Maybe because she was affected by the weather she might have been inclined to look for a cause, someone to blame, even though she was outraged at the idea that the workers would be to blame. Or maybe that's her personality.

(I *have* written to publications saying something like "your headline made me expect X, which is very different from what the article says". Of course it's a matter of politeness to check one's assumptions and at least read the article.)

If the writer sent email (most do, now) I might write back and ask whether she might not be concerned that someone might think she had misunderstood the article. Sometimes I do hear back on those save-people-from-themselves messages, often not.

CALLAHAN RULE: After 48 hours without electrical power, any person can say whatever they want about me or my newspaper, and whatever I wrote in it, edited in it, or is in it.

I consider this a public service to prevent homicides. Of course, if I can get them to say the same thing about the power company with their name attached, I will gaily quote them.

Headlineman blows fuse?

I didn't have the benefit of reading the article, but I guessed that's what you were referring to by the headline. Maybe it's because we have Paneras in my neck of the woods. Good sandwiches.


Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected