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.