Headline headaches…

I was skimming through the day’s top news stories on the internet last week when I came across this surprising headline from Reuters:

New Mexican vigilante group’s sympathizers set fire to government offices, businesses.”

As you might expect, I was rather stunned to read this news about our state and wondered where the burning of government offices and businesses had occurred. And what was the vigilante group protesting? And who were its sympathizers? And why hadn’t I heard about this on any local/state news media?

As I read through the story, it quickly became apparent that this incident happened in the Republic of Mexico, but the headline clearly muddied the waters. A quick change in the wording would have made this story much less alarming for those of us in New Mexico. How about:

“Sympathizers of new vigilante group in Mexico set fire to government offices, businesses.”

Or:

“New vigilante group sympathizers set fire to government offices, businesses in Mexico.”

Most of my career in journalism with United Press International didn’t call for writing headlines. We left that for the print media editors to write at the copy desk before the story was inserted in a newspaper or other periodical or scrolled in a teaser line on the bottom of the TV screen. That didn’t stop us, however, from endlessly writing those headlines for our stories in our minds. I’ve spoken to many other journalists who, over the years, are always writing headlines in their minds for things that have happened to them or what they’ve observed, no matter how mundane.

I had a colleague who was involved in a near-fatal roll over accident who told me that while his car was tumbling end-over-end in a median on a rain-slick Texas highway, he was writing the headline of his death and accident in his mind. Luckily, no newspaper ever had to write it. It was just another traffic accident that probably never got reported.

I spotted another bad one just last week. It said that some former sports figure had “died after drowning.” Well, duh, isn’t the end result of drowning death? He died after he had already died?It should have said he “died from drowning”  or “died in a drowning accident.”  Again, where was the copy editor?

Some things just constantly lend themselves to bad headlines, however. The town of Loving, New Mexico, was a constant source of amusing headlines that you probably couldn’t write your way around. Some examples:

“Loving mayor slugs councilman in the face.”

“Loving police chief arrested for sexual misconduct.”

“Loving man ditches bride at altar.”

The guys at the sports desk always had a “rogue’s gallery” of bad headline writing, usually the best you could find.

One I remember in particular was a story about a Spanish tennis player who had played so badly in his first set that fans began to boo him. He made a miraculous recovery and won the match. The headline for the story read:

“Cheers replace jeers as Poncho pulls it out.”

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