Wednesday, November 04, 2009

How not to write heds

It's easier to recognize inept heds than it is to write good ones. Here's a pair from Tuesday's Freep (and yes, that's how they appear on 2A).

In the first, the hed writer is trying to draw a verb from an adjective the lede:

President Barack Obama’s administration views Afghani­stan President Hamid Karzai as the legitimate leader of the country, White House spokes­man Robert Gibbs said Mon­day.

... without regard to whether "legitimize" has a different meaning -- say, "to make legitimate," rather than "to view as legitimate." It may be the Freep's view that the opinion of the US president is the defining condition of an international figure's legitimacy. If so, it's going to be increasingly hard to tell the Freep from the Fair 'n' Balanced Network, which held that view of international legitimacy up through January of this year.

The second hed is about half a second's thought from being fine. The problem is that you can get a distributed reading out of "Ohio casinos, gay marriage" -- casinos in Ohio and gay marriage in Ohio are on ballots. That's not the only way to read the hed, of course, and I'm not suggesting that it's the easiest or most likely. But it's plausible, and it takes almost exactly the aforementioned half a second to remove any such doubt by switching the subjects: "Gay marriage, Ohio casinos on ballot."

Heds really aren't as easy to write as they look, in case you've never tried to knock out three or four dozen of the things while putting out all the other fires that crop up in the course of a shift on the desk. I'm sorry that papers like the Freep have decided that the craft of hed writing is no longer worth maintaining and encouraging. It's not the biggest canary to fall to the bottom of the mineshaft, but it's another sign that we're starting to pile up an awful lot of dead canaries down there.


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