Sunday, January 07, 2007

The reader stumbles

It's not enough for heds to be clear. They have to be clear about what they're clear about. Remember, people are propping their eyes open with toothpicks and pouring the first coffee of the day when they encounter our handiwork.

N.C. officers not charged in most fatal shootings
Well, that's a relief. I mean, if you had to arrest a cop every time a couple of yahoos in a trailer park started potting at each other, you'd run out of cops in a hurry. But that's not why we're writing the story, is it?
New Hanover County prosecutors took a very rare step when they sought criminal charges against a sheriff's deputy for fatally shooting a Durham teenager last month.

Right. The story's about how often law officers who kill people in the line of duty are charged. That might have been what the hed writer meant, but nobody can see what the hed writer meant. All they can see is what the hed says. See if the writer and the data are happy with something like
Charges rare in fatal shootings by N.C. officers
... which also has the slight advantage of being about what is, rather than what isn't.

Or you can just be unclear:

Art passion flowers for McColl

This one looks like a last-minute space compromise that goes a step too far. The subject is supposed to be "passion," and "flowers" is the verb. It'd work if there was space for "Passion for art flowers for McColl." But the remorseless hed counter says "2 OVER," so the hed writer relies on nouns' ability to hurry around from the far end of a prepositional phrase to modify other nouns from in front. Sometimes it works seamlessly. Sometimes it's a bit clumsy (I'd call "art passion" such a case). And sometimes -- as in this case -- a secondary signal, like the juxtaposition of "passion" and "flowers," stacks the cognitive deck. What presents itself is a verbless hed: Some nameless somebody or something is giving McColl some passion flowers.

If you can't make your original idea make sense in the allotted space, either get more space or throw the idea out and start over. It's Sunday morning, a day of rest in large parts of the Western world. Don't make me work too hard first thing in the morning.

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