According to a Chinese proverb, a picture is worth a thousand words. According to an Indian proverb (my own, actually), a headline is worth much more, even if it’s something as pedestrian as ‘Two killed in road mishap’. A news story without those key words at the top is like a headless chicken or, if you prefer a veggie simile, a Modi-less BJP. I first felt the power of headlines during my maiden year in journalism, when a youth I had never met was ‘killed’ by me — even though the story I edited clearly said that he had survived a suicide attempt. Highly upset at this blunder, the not-dead boy’s father called up the newspaper office, and I was lucky to be let off with a warning. Since then, I have consciously tried to keep people alive in headlines, as far as possible.
No matter whether it is about fellows dead or alive, a headline has to be lively and unusual to grab readers by the eyeballs. The other day, a typical June sizzler, I spotted a bizarre one, ‘Baddi a blast furnace at 46°C’. The weather story’s title instantly transported me to the industrial town in Himachal Pradesh and I almost started sweating, even though my bedroom AC was on at full blast. What’s worse, I felt ashamed of myself for having given done-to-death headlines to similar stories, such as ‘Hisar sizzles at 47°C’ or ‘Amritsar hottest in region’.
An innovative headline magnetically attracts a desk journalist, but it’s also a double-edged sword that can make you a hero or villain in no time. I remember a colleague who landed in trouble by trying to be over-creative. For a tragic story about a family that got asphyxiated to death in their sleep, he came up with this shocker: ‘Four who woke up dead’. Many readers felt it was in bad taste, and the boss was also not amused. A letter bomb was dropped, making it clear that the freedom of the Press should not be taken to such outrageous extremes. Mercifully, the guilty head didn’t roll, but the reprimand served to underline the pitfalls of going overboard with words.
True to form, Indian ‘Journalism of Courage’ Express stuck its neck out in their counting-day edition (May 16) when it screamed ‘HEADLINE AWAITED’. The editorial gamble won bouquets (‘cheeky’, ‘wacky’) as well as brickbats (‘lazy’, ‘lousy’). Rahul Fernandes of Hindustan Times tweeted: “This Indian Express headline is, by far, the best among today’s newspapers.” But Jon Williams, foreign editor for America’s ABC News, called it an “awful fail”, adding that, “Everyone else knew #Modi was going to win.” In my view, IE might as well have left the space empty, offering readers a golden chance to think up their own headlines.
Hit or miss, good, bad or ugly, the headline is an island of brevity in a sea of verbal diarrhoea, as per a north Indian proverb (my own, actually). All you DJs (desk-chained journalists), who remain cut off from the hurly-burly of the world, you have only words to play with — but solely at your own peril.
I’ve culled out some unforgettable headlines (not my own) that are rather funny, though probably not intentionally
Three attempt suicide, one successful: Was it an end-your-life competition? So sad the ‘champion’ wasn’t alive to receive the trophy.
Sachin’s injury gone; to be back soon: Who or what would be back soon? Sachin, or his injury?
Man arrested with sensitive parts: Before you start exercising your dirty mind, I must clarify that these were electronic parts, not human.