Tag Archives: rhetoric

The 18th type of headline

29 May

One edition of the New York Post, two page leads that give pause for thought for anyone who, a week earlier, might have ambitiously been attempting to compile a taxonomy of headlines:

The back-page headline is of a recognisable type: the question is, which type? The Post is understandably jubilant about the Mets’ series triumph over the Arizona Diamondbacks, but that doesn’t fully explain what it means by SWEEP SNAKES. As the team that lost all three games on their visit to New York, it wasn’t the Snakes that were doing the sweeping, as the headline implies: the Snakes were the ones being swept.

So this could be one of two things. It could just be another unparseable tabloid pun (headline type 12): aspects of the story jammed together to create a homophonous phrase without too much attention paid to syntax. But the presence of a verb and an object along with the obvious absence of the subject, especially in an American publication, also entices one to think that it might be a flying verb (headline type 14): that the intended sentence is in fact METS SWEEP SNAKES.

In the UK, the Sun also comes up with headlines very like this – ones that make more grammatical sense if you assume the subject is implied – but there’s no tradition of flying-verb constructions in Britain and the assumption in those cases has to be just that sense has been sacrificed in the pursuit of the joke.

That would certainly seem to be the case on the Post’s front page headline too, at least for the part in big type: there is not much actual grammatical sense to be found in the phrase WEED MY LIPS. But the preamble above, “De Blasio to NYPD”, recalls a famous American headline from days gone by, still regularly reproduced today, that is harder to categorise:

The original appeared in New York in 1975, when President Ford made a speech declining to approve federal assistance to the near-bankrupt city authorities, to the fury of the Daily News. As the New York Times remembers, FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD was originally notorious for its perceived lack of fairness – was it really accurate to summarise the president’s words in such a belligerent way? Ford himself blamed it for his losing New York, and by extension the presidency, to Jimmy Carter in the following year’s election, even though by that stage he had relented and loaned the city money. But as a form, its rhetorical efficiency is so obvious that it has outlived its controversial origins and become a reliable construction in its own right.

It’s not quite a voice-of-the-author (headline type 5) because it attempts to speak in the voice of the protagonist, rather than the writer. And it’s not quite an annotated quote (headline type 4) because the intent is clearly to editorialise the message rather than simply reproduce it. It therefore qualifies, I think, as an 18th type of headline, and the list will be updated accordingly. (A scant two weeks after being published. Still, I did say it was hubristic).

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The 17* types of headline (*actually 18)

29 May

A bit hubristic to think this is all of them (and there are some hybrid forms), but here goes with a first attempt at a taxonomy:*

UPDATE, 29 MAY 2018: An 18th category of headline has been added: The voice of the protagonist (editorialised).

 

1) The simple declarative sentence

The first option to consider for straight news stories. Works at its best when the story is so good as to not require embellishment: NIXON QUITS, MEN WALK ON MOON, WHALE SWIMS PAST COMMONS. Can be used quite effectively to express opinion as well as facts (eg for leading articles). Doesn’t work for features, where it is important to signal the elevated quality of the writing in the headline, or interviews, where it’s much more interesting to hear the interviewee’s words verbatim. Exists in reversed form at the New York Times, with the prepositional phrase positioned at the start (“In Lower Saxony, An Artisan In Cheese Evokes Fond Memories”).

 

2) The existential emotion

Actually also a declarative sentence, but one that omits an understood existential clause (“There is”, “There are”, “There will be”) at the beginning in order to start with the exciting bit: anger, shock, horror, etc. Distinctively British.

 

3) The killer quote

Just the quote on its own, with no attribution or explanation. Effective when an opportunity to use it presents itself, which it rarely does, because without any annotation the quote will have to be both eye-catching and completely self-explanatory (at least for the web), which few ever are. (Even this one, from the BBC, inserts the word ‘also’).

 

4) The annotated killer quote

Ideal for interviews, vox pops and eyewitness stories: just find the most pithy phrase the subject says, and fill in the background afterwards. However, like the popular shopping-list and zingy-kicker headlines (see below), it usually requires a colon, which can mean the paper filling up quickly with kicker-style heds.

 

5) The voice of the author

A less demanding, paraphrased form of the killer quote, where the headline is written in the interviewee’s (or sometimes columnist’s) voice without actually being verbatim. Frequently begins with “My …”.

 

6) The then-and-now

The best way to approach large measures: however big your headline box is, this technique will fill it. Also works well for standfirsts. All the material you need is there in the body text, which is hundreds of words long: all you have to do is insert as much of the backstory as you need to take up the space, then follow it up with the news item in the first paragraph of the copy. Not useful for one-column NIB headlines.

 

7) The brusque rebuttal (aka the ‘No, the Earth isn’t flat’)

By far the most effective rebuttal headline, and the exception that proves the rule, observed in some newsrooms, that headlines should never begin with the words “No” or “Don’t”. Works because it begins with the denial, whereas any other contentious form has to begin with the subject of the dispute (“The Numbers On Toaster Dials Don’t … “) or a more abstract construction “(Why It Is Not True That ….”), which dissipates the impact. A relatively new form: perhaps that’s because it’s particularly effective when rebroadcast on Twitter, where directness is the standard mode of address.

 

8) The head-scratching question

A world full of questions also tends to generate journalism full of questions. Not exactly a recommended style, but often the only kind of headline you can write on pieces that fail to come to any solid conclusion. Usage per edition should be carefully rationed.

 

9) The insinuating question

Is this the most insidious headline form in Britain? As unscrupulous back benches know, a question headline means rarely having to say you’re sorry in the libel courts. Entirely different from the head-scratching question, because it knows precisely what it wants you to think. Ethically dubious.

 

10) The question-and-answer

The most respectable form of question headline, it at least has the courage to come a conclusion on its own. Good for comment and analysis pieces, as it gives the impression of a position being taken only after due consideration of the issues. Too indecisive-sounding for editorials, where the tone of certainty must be absolute.

 

11) The single-word shocker

GOTCHA! HORROR! WINNERS! OUTRAGE! Usually only for special occasions, or occasions you wish to imply are special.

 

12) The unparseable pun

An exclusively tabloid creation, often comprised of a well-known phrase, apposite to the story, with one word changed to reflect another aspect of the story. You can see the relevance of the first part; you can see the joke in the second part. But you can’t actually extract any sense out of the resulting sentence when you put the two together. A separate category from the standard tabloid pun headline, which is often a readily comprehensible sentence with homophone substitutions.

 

13) The zingy kicker

A joke, sometimes even an unparseable pun, but with an explanation afterwards to help you understand it. Another tempting headline form that requires a colon.

 

14) The flying verb

Omits the subject of the sentence (creating an “implied subject”) and starts with a verb. Almost exclusively American. Often baffling. Now very rare.

 

15) The columnist’s imperative

Voice of cold command, using the imperative mood, from the most authoritative figures in the land, viz one’s own opinion writers. Achieves its apotheosis in the form of the “open letter” (“DEAR PRINCE HARRY, don’t assume …”).

 

16) The how/why

Seductive and explanatory (and perilously easy to overuse). Gives the impression of an organisation with a high level of expertise and a mission to enlighten. Often a marker of the more highbrow publication. (The tabloid headline: I SLEPT WITH 1,000 WOMEN. The broadsheet headline: WHY I SLEPT WITH 1,000 WOMEN.)

 

17) The shopping list

Useful for nervous sub-editors confronted by legally complex stories with many moving parts. Also good if neither you or (you fear) the reporter fully understands the relationships between all the players in the drama, because it entirely dispenses with verbs; as we have previously discussed, verbs can get you sued.

 

18) The voice of the protagonist (editorialised)

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Compact and effective quote-style headline in which the subject of the story’s words are pithily summarised, sometimes to his or her disadvantage. Far more editorialised than other quotation heds. Have caused controversy.

 

*I’ve attempted to classify headlines by rhetorical form rather than tone: most of these headline types can equally be funny or serious, punning or straight, while retaining the same essential structure

How to write a claim quote

16 May

Breaking:

A US Congressman has shocked Capitol Hill by claiming to know the identity of crimefighting hero Superman. Hank Bystander (D-NY), whose congressional district covers southern Midvale in Metropolis, told a hearing of the newly formed House committee on media ethics: “It’s no secret in the neighbourhood. We know who Superman is. He’s another damn journalist. His name is Clark Kent, and he writes for the Daily Planet.”

This is a somebody-said-something story. It’s on the record, from a person of substance, and unquestionably attention-grabbing; but it comes without any supporting evidence. It is, to use the laconic phrase heard on the Tribune newsdesk, “interesting if true”. So the display type will not announce CLARK KENT IS SUPERMAN in the newspaper’s own voice: it will attribute the claim to the person who said it, and leave readers to judge for themselves.

How will it do that? There are a couple of options. The first headline option (Type A) is the splashy, read-me, direct-speech quote:

CONGRESSMAN: ‘WE KNOW WHO SUPERMAN IS’

This is beyond reproach: the quote is verbatim, the attribution explicit. The only problem with using a direct quote is that, as here, natural speech doesn’t compress all the news into the very short sentence you need. So you could take the more informative option (Type B) of reported speech plus attribution:

SUPERMAN IS DAILY PLANET JOURNALIST, SAYS CONGRESSMAN

The congressman did not actually utter the phrase “Superman is Daily Planet journalist”, of course, in crisp headlinese. He said: “His name is Clark Kent, and he writes for the Daily Planet.” But this is reported speech, not direct speech, and the paraphrasing of reported speech is uncontroversial, as long as it accurately reflects the sense of what was said.

And then, in the British headline tradition, there is a third option. In the UK, it is further permissible (almost always for reasons of space) to take that headline, remove the attribution and put the claim, in its paraphrased form, back into quotes to create a claim quote:

SUPERMAN ‘IS DAILY PLANET JOURNALIST’

It is sometimes thought that claim quote headlines are a cavalier, irresponsible form of Type A headline, in which a direct quote is rewritten to suit the newspaper’s purposes and passed off as another’s words. In fact, what they are – or should be – is this: truncated Type B headlines. The key test of a proper claim quote headline is not that you can find the exact quote somewhere in the story, but that you can reverse-engineer it into reported speech plus attribution using the information in the opening paragraphs.*

How, then, can you tell a claim quote from an actual quote? In British headline culture, the most significant clue is the presence of quote marks but the absence of attribution. Type B headlines, of course, do not need quote marks at all, and even in the UK, readers would be disappointed to see a Type A headline – quote marks and an attribution together – if the quotation was not verbatim from the source. Quotes are the lifeblood of journalism in the UK as they are everywhere else – the Scotland football manager Gordon Strachan once sourly observed that he saw media interviews as a reductive game in which journalists would try to get him to use a certain word: if he avoided saying that word, he won; if it slipped out, he lost. Accordingly, the presence of a direct quote and an attribution together in a headline is usually an indicator of a journalistic “victory” of this type, where the story is that a public figure has used a newsworthy turn of phrase.

However, to British readers, an unattributed quote does not primarily indicate the presence of speech, but the presence of a claim. If the quote happens to be verbatim, then so much the better; but either way its significance is the same. The likeliest purpose of an unattributed quote in a headline is to signal the newspaper’s reservations about its veracity. The presumption is that unattributed quotes in Fleet Street headlines rarely indicate speech; they almost always indicate doubt.

* This is the key measure of viability, but not the only one; HeadsUp has been collecting a number of claim-quote heds that scrape through this test but fail on wider grounds of comprehension or readability. Claim quotes may be widespread in British journalism, but they’re not exempted from the normal rules of syntax. 

You ‘can’t say that’

2 May

Years ago – and this is pre-YouTube, so I’ve been searching in vain for clips – there used to be a segment of a British satirical news quiz that revolved entirely around putting claim quotes in headlines.

I have a distinct memory of Dara O Briain being in charge, so perhaps it was a round on Mock The Week. Anyway, what would happen is that utterly scandalous, defamatory headlines about eminent people would flash up onto the screen, and the contestants would have to insert claim quotes around the most damaging parts to avoid their imaginary newspaper being sued for libel. The more of the headline you could let stand outside the quotes, the more points you got: those who played it safe and put the entire thing in quotation marks were greeted with jeers and cries of “Cowards!” from the chair.

The fact that this idea could ever form part of a national light entertainment programme says a lot about how well understood claim quotes are in the British public imagination. But it also reveals something slightly more worrying: a perception that claim quotes are not just a way to signal a newspaper’s distance from allegations, but a magic device that can be deployed to bamboozle lawyers, avoid editorial responsibility, or quarantine any phrase you’re not quite sure of.

Which is perhaps why we sometimes end up with headlines like this:

The saga of the young people who paid thousands to attend a de luxe event in the Bahamas only to find themselves trapped in ramshackle tents and fed packed lunches has been all the rage on social media, so it’s not surprising the Telegraph has been looking into it. This is their headline, containing not one but two quoted elements, on their main news story last week.

The second quoted element, “mugged, stranded and hungry”, is a classic claim quote – which is to say, not an actual quote, but an allegation in reported speech placed within quotation marks to signal its contested nature. This is the headline convention that British TV audiences are familiar with: the shorthand that stands in for a full attribution, such as “claim customers” or “say unhappy youngsters”, that will be made clear in the text. As you read the story, you do indeed find third parties complaining of all three of those things, although the case for hunger is perhaps more understood than explicit.

The first quoted element, however, is a different matter. You can look up and down the story, and not see a single reference to either the Hunger Games or Rich Kids of Instagram. And to be clear, I don’t just mean that nobody says it verbatim: I mean that nobody says it at all – not in the embedded tweets, not in the quotes, not in the reporter’s own words. What appears to have happened is that the back bench has perceived the resemblance between the news and two evergreen memes – one relating to teenage excess, the other to teenage suffering – and boiled the story down to one pithy phrase in the headline. But if so, why is it in quotes?

You can certainly quibble with this characterisation. Yes, the victims are (probably) rich kids who (probably) use Instagram, but Rich Kids of Instagram (#RKOI), as originally conceived, is something more specific: an ostentatious photography series published by heirs of wealthy families showing themselves driving Ferraris, flying on Learjets or emptying bottles of Krug over their waterproof Rolexes. Many of the Instagram influencers who were reportedly paid to publicise this festival are a different breed: semi-celebrities or actual celebrities with large personal followings rather than unknown trust-fund babies.

Similarly, you may not feel that an amusing photo of a cheese sandwich justifies a comparison with the Hunger Games novels, in which teenagers are forced to fight to the death for food in a post-apocalyptic tournament. It’s a judgment call: you might decide that the popularity and social implications of the story justify a little hyperbole.

But the point is: quote marks aren’t going to help. This isn’t a claim, or even a report of a claim: it’s a commentary. Newspapers are fully at liberty to editorialise in headlines, of course, but they have to do it in their own voice. If you feel the characterisation is witty and apposite, take the quote marks off. If you feel you’re pushing it by making the comparison, don’t make it. This is your idea, your analysis; you’re not entitled to pass it off as somebody else’s.

As this blog has had occasion to say before, claim quotes do not exist for headline writers to signal doubts about their own work, or avoid the consequences of their own words. Claim quotes are for claims: claims made by other people. They’re a peculiarly British convention that other anglophone journalists don’t immediately understand: that’s not entirely surprising, since we don’t always get them right ourselves.

The cook, the thief, his wife and her headline

21 Mar

picture-178

So the allegation is that City regulators waved through an allegedly illicit payment for a supposedly profitable oilfield to a man who had been convicted of a money-laundering offence over an unrelated matter. Two huge oil companies allegedly completed the transaction with this man via the offices of a national government. Former MI6 officers are claimed to have been at the heart of the deal and some of the money in question was also used to purchase armoured cars, it is alleged.

Picking the right verb for the headline at times like this is tricky – or at least, finding space for the kind of caution that the Tribune’s lawyer will be happy with. “Accused of”, “said to have”, “reported to be” – they make the story safer in the courts, but dilute its impact on the page. As previously discussed, you could always replace the verb with “in”, for that useful combination of vagueness and implication. Or you could use “amid” for those collections of circumstances whose precise relationship to each other is hard to elucidate.*

But if the verbs are hard, the nouns are easy in stories like this: they jump out. Oil, disgrace, MI6, armour, $800m: there’s too many to choose from. With ingredients this good, you don’t actually need to write a sentence: you can just write a shopping list.

And they’re easy to assemble. Start with one or two of the most colourful bits of the story. Put the core of the news last. If you like, add an EMPHATIC Daily Mail intensifier in uppercase as garnish … and you’ve got yourself a list headline.

Like this:

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This is, of course, the General Petraeus love-affair scandal that shook the US in 2012. By this stage of the investigation, the whole story had become quite complicated, with a second woman and another leading general drawn in to the narrative. This Mail article actually reveals there were two sets of emails, sent independently between more than one pair of protagonists; the second was only discovered by chance after an unrelated police inquiry. That’s a lot to try to explain even in headlines as long as the Daily Mail’s. So the obvious thing to do is to abandon the verbs and go with the nouns.

What’s even more impressive is the second part of that headline: an adverbial clause followed by an object noun phrase, separated by a comma and nothing else. That’s advanced verb-avoidance indeed.

Admittedly, in this case, it’s hard to read any but the most benign missing words into the gap:

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [read] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

As a SECOND general is dragged in, [this is] the story of the sex scandal gripping America

But it goes to show how well you can attract readers’ attention without ever telling them what’s going on.

*Or, indeed, is non-existent.

Neutral News at Ten

24 Jan

Now this – this – is a news organisation that’s committed to impartiality:

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On Fleet Street, where the culture wars rage, no one is surprised that newspapers take sides in their use of language just as they do on their leader pages. But imagine the pressure to stay out of trouble if you’re writing the BBC’s style guide – the benchmark for judicious, non-partisan, inclusive journalism, paid for by all and bound by conscience to reflect all views.

How does it do? By and large, very well. In all areas where it can stay aloof, it does. It frequently links to the painstakingly fair current affairs briefings on the BBC’s Academy website, and it demonstrates a capacity to make distinctions and see both sides that is almost jurisprudential. Whether distinguishing a population from the militants that claim to represent them, or identifying both winners and losers when interest rates rise, it’s hard not to like a style guide that reminds you “not all Tamils are Tigers”, or that “good news” is “not to be used as a blanket term”. For example:

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But the problem for all style guides is that there are areas of political language where it is impossible to stay aloof, because the only terms in common use have become polarised. The BBC guide is more silent than it should be on some of these: there is no help for its journalists on the choice between “bedroom tax” and “spare room subsidy”, for instance, or whether it is fair to call George Osborne’s higher national wage a “living wage”, as he did. But there is at least one controversial area where it does offer guidance, to say this:

Abortion

Avoid pro-abortion, and use pro-choice instead. Campaigners favour a woman’s right to choose, rather than abortion itself. And use anti-abortion rather than pro-life, except where it is part of the title of a group’s name. 

At the left-leaning Tribune, this is not a difficult conclusion to reach. We readily dismiss the term “pro-life”: as the duty editor sometimes observes, “everyone’s pro-life”. Over at Fox News and the Daily Mail, the opposite view is taken and the phrase is in widespread use. So the decision for a BBC style guide editors must have been very sensitive. Indeed, forced to make the best of the bitter rhetoric that surrounds an angry issue, they might have opened themselves to an accusation of  bias. But what would be the alternative? Only to adopt the other side’s terms and opt for framing the debate as “pro-abortion” versus “pro-life”, alienating a different group of licence-fee payers just as much.

Judicious evenhandedness is an admirable approach to journalism, but the straight and narrow way has an awkward habit of narrowing to a point in the trickiest areas. Reading the style guide, it is impossible to doubt the BBC’s essential fairness and good conscience. But when there’s no middle ground, everyone’s forced to pick a side.

Secrets of style

16 Feb

You should always put right a factual error, of course. But would you really issue a correction in the paper for not having followed your own house style?

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This correction, in the Guardian earlier this month, is purely a matter of preference, not error. Style guides sometimes deal with issues of fact – warnings about, say common geographical mistakes – but this isn’t one of those times. This is just an absence of quote marks that doesn’t seem to affect the sense of the sentence; something that only someone who had read the style guide would even know was wrong.

Admittedly, the Guardian’s guide is publicly available online for those who take an interest, but it’s not as though the reader’s editor feels compelled to apologise for every lapse in consistency. For example, Guardian style calls for “focused” with one “s”; it sometimes appears with two, but there’s never been a correction about it.

But the rest of the column makes it clear why these quotes matter. The Guardian has been a supporter of the Living Wage campaign, which urges employers to offer an hourly pay figure somewhat higher the statutory minimum wage. In the 2015 budget, George Osborne introduced what he called a “national living wage”, borrowing the campaign’s phrase but not fully winning its approval: his proposal does not include a higher rate for London, is not set according to a cost-of-living index, and came alongside a series of benefit adjustments for the lower-paid that were nowhere contemplated in the campaign’s calculations.

It is therefore the campaign’s, and the Guardian’s, position that the “national living wage” is not actually a living wage, but a rebranding and increasing of the minimum wage. So the style guide uses quotes to indicate that the phrase is not the paper’s but the government’s: it acknowledges the official title while maintaining its distance from it.

That means the correction is acknowledging not just a failure in neatness or consistency, but something bigger: a lack of critical thinking, a lapse in the acuity one would expect from the paper in its political reporting. A piece of parliamentary rhetoric has found its way into the paper unchallenged. It’s an apology, in effect, for seeming to be credulous.

Of course the British media’s openly displayed party preferences play a large part in the setting of style like this: the Telegraph, at the other end of the political spectrum from the Guardian, sees no reason to use quotes around the term in news coverage. It’s hardly unusual to see Fleet Street pick a fight over a phrase.

But it does show what consistent style can achieve, in addition to keeping a lid on misspellings. Style guides don’t just contain rules, they contain thinking: tiny position papers that encapsulate the reason for a choice on a sensitive issue, whether it’s between undocumented or illegal, Derry or Londonderry, Burma or Myanmar, refugee or migrant. The issues are unpacked once, considered, then formulated into a rule rather than opened up for debate every time. So then, when you follow the style guide, the paper’s worldview comes with it: the mosaic of rulings not only keeps the writing tidy, but infuses the text with the spirit of the paper. With a good style guide, you don’t need to read the leader page to know roughly where a newspaper stands: its choice of words on any page will tell you.