ColumnDear headline writers. This is not Spinal Tap.
Made you click! Quite a task, it seems, in today’s hyper-competitive online media marketplace. After all, this story is just one of dozens, maybe even hundreds, that will compete for your attention today. And the truth is that some of us will use any trick in the book to get at your precious eyeballs, including cry-wolf, volume-to-11 headlines.
We all get snagged this way from time to time. Evidently, some—let’s say quantifiable lots—more than others. In many ways, we seem to have come full circle back to the days of the penny press and its yellow journalism, with an omnipresent din of hawkers on every digital street corner: Extra! Extra! Every single word guaranteed to be over the top!
But really, is everything an extra? Is there nothing interesting that remains appropriately under the top? Apparently not much.
The noise starts early in the day, for some even before we get out of bed, our smartphones serving up morning copy that promises to be “truly unbelievable!” and photo stories that are nothing short of cap-S “stunning!” and cap B-“breathtaking!” Yes, the a.m. rush isn’t complete without being informed that today—every day, in fact—is the best of times and the worst of times, the end of something as we know it, and the magnificent start of something new. Do we dare miss out?
Here’s one from Upworthy, a good site with a lot of compelling material: “This Is Not A Joke. You May Laugh, But You Shouldn’t. It’s Quite Horrifying—It has to be seen to be believed. But you still won’t believe it.” Really? This is about a bizarre napkin designed to cover the mouths of Japanese women while they eat hamburgers. Insanely weird and sexist? Yes. Warranting a headline that would make a civil defense air-raid siren blush? Maybe not.
Moving on, how does (did?) this grab you: “Antibiotic resistance will mean the end of just about everything as we know it.” Right. That’s from Salon, a way-too-frequent flyer on click-me-now air, and purveyor of other gems such as “Psychopaths: Some are just like us!” (Are they?!) and “Embrace your small penis, men: Everyone else is lying anyway!” Mmhmm. Thanks.
Of course, nothing screams like good sex—or rather, porn. Lots of porn. “Food porn.” “Ruin porn.” “Nature porn.” And, for the more bookish, here is a related, sexualizing the unsexualizable trend that won’t seem to go away: I call it “A Million Shades of 50 Shades.” Politics: “Israel’s 50 shades of dismay over Iran nuke deal.” (GlobalPost). Science: “50 Shades of Grey (Matter): How Science is Defying BDSM Stereotypes.” (Huffington Post) Literature: “You Want Erotic? The Countless Shades of Anaïs Nin.” (Yeah, well, that last one was mine. At least I went for book on book.)
Of course, there are easy pickings on both our Left and Right. Obamacare: “Worse Than Slavery.” Debt ceiling: “How to prepare for the… apocalypse.” The cacophony in this category is truly beyond the pale. Even down-the-middle CNN (I know, if CNN represents the middle, we’re in real trouble) recently offered us this, just in case tornadic destruction wasn’t enough to grab our attention: “Grandma’s Last Words: ‘Get Me Out.’” Thank you, CNN.
Want more? Just Google something. Anything. You’ll find a headline to suit your most highly caffeinated, info-active mood about all things est—biggest, baddest, worst, best. The hunt for something incredible (in the strictest sense of the word) is like shooting fish in barrel. In fact, you don’t even have to search. It will come to you. (To avoid piling on, let’s pass for now on deliberately misleading headlines, a story unto itself: accuracy as collateral damage.)
Yet strangely, it doesn’t seem too long ago in Webville when superlatives more or less meant something, and an Onion headline was an Onion headline, and not mistaken (at second blush, at least) for real information.
Step Right Up
In a past lifetime, when I was a first-year Journalism grad student in Chicago, headline writing was part of a fearsome, nuts-and-bolts J-school boot camp. (One prof was a formidable ex-marine, in fact, boasting a handlebar mustache and a hair-trigger red pen.) The effort was like puzzle-solving—and not everyone was good at it. Limited space, limited words, a story to represent and (just as with the lead) a promise to be fulfilled if a reader should take the time to engage. And, yes, eyeballs to grab, too. All told, creating a headline is like wrestling with a mini Rubik’s cube.
The idea of selling your story often taps into a different side of the brain than actually covering it. Indeed, in most editorial worlds, headlines are not written by the writer of the piece itself, but by talented copy editors and, increasingly (online), by editors themselves. Writers who have been around will tell you of the countless times they opened their paper (or magazine, or laptop) and saw their copy under some weird words that made them think hmmm—or, more likely, “oh god, no.”
In any case, no matter who’s behind what’s on top of a story, there’s nothing wrong with selling copy with snappy headlines. They can be fun and creative and (hopefully) expository—an art form unto themselves. And no one, myself included, wants you to pass over his or her work for want of intrigue. (Kudos, by the way, to someone in these pages who recently walked the line and came out shining with “The Universe is So Weird! There’s Plastic on Saturn’s Moon?”)
Moreover, facts (and there so many of them) are facts: In the not-too-distant past, each day we were confronted with a limited number of “stories”—a newspaper or two, maybe a magazine or three, some TV to choose from. But today, we’re hit with thousands of them during our waking hours, most of which come to us online, as for-profit media outlets scratch away and beg so very hard for our mindpsace. Let’s be honest: no one should expect a publishing effort to be okay with simply fading into the background.
But as readers, many of us need to do a better job considering the cry-wolf factor as we scan our screens. (Face it, there’s not going to be an uprising anytime soon that says to HuffPo, Salon and all the others, “keep pulling that crap with the headlines and you’ll lose market share.” It sure would be nice though, huh?) Maybe it is just one breath of awareness before we offer up our prized click. That nanosecond when we can say: “Wait. Really? Am I really going to reach for that bright shiny thing?”
Finally, consider that subtlety isn’t dead—it’s just, well, subtle. Noise isn’t the key to good copy or truthful news. In fact, it might serve to tell you that what follows is not as advertised. Discernment is what it’s cracked up to be. The more game you bring, the better gems you are going to find.
I guess it’s like anything else in the days of the horrifying, unbelievable, incredible Information Age—it’s our job to consume wisely and be on lookout for what is real and true under the sea of hype. That said, headline writers, please stop screaming at me! On a scale of 1 to 10, even for the sensational, 10 is enough. This is not Spinal Tap.
(As I write, this just in: “Man who stripped naked and stuck a fire extinguisher hose up his bottom in a hotel corridor walks free.”—The Independent. Seriously?)
Scott Adelson is EcoSalon’s Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at scott at adelson dot org and follow him @scottadelson on Twitter.