ACES 2012 | New Orleans

What readers want — headline version

A diverse panel of news readers tells copy editors that clarity and accuracy are most important in headlines … and skip those popular headlinese words like stymies and touts

By Brooke Carbo
The University of Alabama

During the popular ACES conference session “Inside Readers’ Heads,” editing consultant Alex Cruden questioned a panel of seven New Orleans residents on their turn-ons, and offs, when it comes to news headlines.

From a 16-year-old student who skims the headlines on Facebook to a silver-haired schoolteacher who prefers the nightly news, the diverse panel didn’t hold back as real world headlines splashed across the screen at the Saturday morning session during ACES national conference April 12-14.

Cruden, who has conducted similar panels across the country, said he has consistently found readers’ first priority to be clarity. And this panel proved to be no exception.

When given a choice between an emotional yet vague headline or its straightforward counterpart, most chose the straightforward option.

Kevin, a human resource manager and loyal reader, said he preferred a “more accurate” headline, as did 16-year-old Alyssa. And Jen, a contractor in her 20s, voiced her dislike for headlines that tug at the heart instead of getting to the point.

Longer headlines should remember the principle of the inverted pyramid, keeping important words near the beginning. When asked why one wordy caption didn’t do it for her, Kate, a researcher in her late 30s, said she’d thought it was about a completely different subject up until she read the very last word.

Cal, a 20-year-old graphic designer, agreed saying, “You have to read it several times and by then I’m bored.”

Calling copy editors out for what he called their “strange attachment to language of the past,” Cruden asked about the use of verbs such as touts and stymies.

“It sounds like they’re trying too hard,” Cal said, summing up the thoughts of his fellow panelists.

Another value Cruden has found to be prized by readers is intelligence. While the New Orleans panel demanded clarity, they also showed a preference for what Jen described as “educated” captions.

Or as Cal put it, “Someone actually spent time thinking about it.”

Several panelists mentioned that headlines that try to cram in too much information leave them no reason to read the story.

“I want to be draw in,” Carl, a Catholic school teacher and the panel’s oldest member, said.

Often this can be accomplished with a little creative wordplay, as long as copy editors keep readers’ third priority of news headlines in mind: Is it appropriate?

A clever turn of phrase can be effective in the right context. “But I don’t want it all the time,” Carl said.

Panelists agreed that puns miss their mark in stories about tragedy, death and other serious topics. Headlines should be indicative of the story that follows.

“A clever headline will catch your attention,” admitted Seeha, a mother and formal journalist. But it must be followed by a clever piece of writing she said. The reader will only be fooled so many times.

In other words: “Don’t use the word scandal if it’s not a scandal,” Kevin said, cutting to the heart of the matter. “That’s where the media loses credibility.”

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