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When headlines are the story

In newspapers, it used to be the challenge to write the best headline you could in the fewest words possible, because space was usually at a premium.

Sometimes it was easy, such as 54 years ago, when the New York Times for July 21, 1969 front page simply said, “Man Walks on Moon”.

However, while reading a short, punchy headline that captures the story perfectly is fun, reading a headline, short or long, that misses something is even more fun.

Take the Chicago Tribune in 1948, which found itself right on deadline with the results of the U.S. presidential election still unclear. They decided to go with what the polls had been saying as a headline, and “Dewey Defeats Truman” has gone down in the wrong kind of history.

For those of you who can’t remember, Thomas Dewey was picked by most of the pollsters to defeat Harry Truman, but he didn’t. The great image that ran in other papers the next day (but not the Tribune) was of Truman, with a huge smile on his face, holding up the Tribune front page.

Many of the polls had confidently predicted a Dewey win, but they failed to take into account facial hair. One pollster (and I have been unable to track down which one it was) found a lot of women would not vote for a man with a mustache, which Dewey had. With that knowledge, the pollster predicted Truman would win.

I found an example recently of a longer headline which just doesn’t sound quite right. The advent of newspapers online means the possibility of longer headlines, since they don’t have to fit into a specific space. I’m not sure if this same headline ran in the print versions of the newspaper involved. I hope it didn’t.

It was a story out of court in the Okanagan area. The headline read, “Man charged with murder after body found in Okanagan Lake appears in Kelowna court”.

I know what the headline writer was trying to get at, but the way the headline is written, it wasn’t the MAN who appeared in Kelowna court, it was the BODY.

The verb ‘appears’ should refer to the nearest pertinent noun, which in this case is ‘body’. It doesn’t.

I wrote headlines for years for community papers, and I have spent some time over the past few days trying to rewrite that headline to make sense. My best try would be a headline like “Murder charge laid in Kelowna court”, and then a subhead mentioning it was in relation to the body found in Okanagan Lake.

Sometimes, trying to tell the whole story in the headline doesn’t work.

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