John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Trying too hard

The art of writing a headline is to encapsulate the central element and tone of the article in a way that a reader can take in at a glance.

It took more than a glance for me to decipher this headline on the front page of this morning’s Baltimore Sun:

Flags down
over Block
award to
Eagles’ Vick


This is one of those headlines that make sense only after you read the story: That the annual Ed Block Courage Award is being given to Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles — the man who ran a dog-fighting operation — has caused local outrage.

There are two ways in which this headline tries too hard and defeats its own purposes. The first is to jam all those proper nouns, Block, Eagles, Vick. Michael Vick is notorious enough locally that Eagles could have been sacrificed. The second mistake was to try to be clever while jamming all that information in with wordplay on flag down on play. You know, football.

The result is a headline that has too much — information — and too little — context for the wordplay. It is only in the secondary headline, Animal advocates outraged / over teammates’ choice, that the penny drops.

Simplify, simplify.

6 comments:

  1. A further problem is that "Flags down" also evokes that symbol of mourning, flying flags at half staff. Once the reader gets the wrong image, it's awfully difficult for them to disabuse themselves of it. It's the verbal equivalent of those drawings meant to demonstrate differences in perspective -- for example, the one where some can see only a young, beautiful woman and others can see only an aged crone.

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  2. "Flags thrown..." would have made more sense right away.

    Though profiled as Anonymous, I am MichiganCityDDS on twitter.

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  3. The larger question to me is why a week old story continues to be rehashed and is getting a headline at all.

    Seems more like what passes for an editorial board is still in pique that more of the public haven't protested the election of Vick or his return to the public eye in general after "doing his time".

    MrR

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  4. Flags raised would sound more like it to me.

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  5. I agree with MrR. This headline reflects OLD news. It makes The Sun look like it's playing catchup. The visual editors in charge should have thought about how the design of the story would make it difficult to come up with a second-day (or seventh-day) headline. But, it is the Baltimore edition of The Chicago Tribune. We can only expect so much. Perhaps it was a prefabbed news module packaged in the Midwest.

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  6. The art of writing headlines has surely declined since the tabloid heyday that gave us this one, concerning an ailing Gloria Vanderbilt retuning home from an abbreviated European vacation:

    SICK GLORIA IN TRANSIT

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