Thursday, August 11, 2016

The nuance of headlines

The headline this morning on the story of our dean, Charles Bierbauer, who announced yesterday he's leaving that job at the end of the academic year in June, got me thinking about the nuance of headlines.

Headline writing is tough. Don't believe me? Just try summarizing that nuclear disarmament story in a nine-count, three-line, one-column hed in print. (That would be a total of roughly 27 characters for those of the Twitter age, and probably one or two fewer because with print fonts, capital letters are wider and count as 1 1/2 or two, m's and w's are wider, some lowercase letters only count as one-half, etc.)

It's not a lot better online. Sure, you don't have to worry about those pesky line breaks, but even online heds have their limits -- abut 65 characters if you want to make sure it displays properly in those search engine results or on a mobile screen. Again, still less than your normal tweet.

There are a lot of ways things can go wrong.

This discussion isn't about the laughingly off tone, like "DOJ launching Fannie probe" (referring to an investigation of the Federal National Mortgage Association, more commonly known as Fannie Mae).

Nor is it about "Their ship has come in" -- a glaringly tone-deaf headline atop a story about a memorial for the hundreds of sailors who died when the USS Indianapolis sank. (Their ship is never coming in.) Or the awful "xx Mississippians gone with the wind" (I forget the exact number) on a story about hurricane deaths.

This is about those tiny but important nuances that journalists must face every day. They are ever present in reporting and writing. They become more glaringly so when translated to a headline.

So today there is this headline on a story on The State newspaper's website:

OK. It's serviceable. Nothing really wrong. But as we've learned time and time again this political season, there is right -- and then there is more right. With headlines, it often comes down to verb tense and word connotation and order.

In headline writing, there are some rules, or at least guides, when it comes to verb tense. The present participle (stepping) indicates current ongoing action or sometimes action to be completed in the near future. The present tense is used as "historical present" to represent action recently completed. The future speaks for itself. The past tense is rarely used; it is supposed to signify new information about something in the past not previously known (say, for instance, you just got a 5-year-old report showing that the Justice Department investigated Fannie Mae but no one knew till now. Then you might write DOJ probed Fannie ... OK, maybe not. But you get the idea.)

So using "steps" in this headline really means the dean has done the deed already. Yes, he's announced it, so one could argue he sort of kind of stepped down. But he's not really leaving till June, and this is August, so the nuance is wrong. "To step" (or will) is the better choice. That is the tense used in the university news release (though it is interesting to see the URL uses "stepping").

All words have denotation and connotation. So the denotation of "step down" is fine -- it is what he is doing in the broad sense. But the connotation gets us to nuance again. When we hear an official has stepped down, the mind wonders a bit why? Did something wrong? Retiring? Health?

In other words, while the phrase is technically correct (denotation), it is broader than needed and leaves itself open to questions and multiple interpretations, not all of them flattering (connotation). In headline writing, whenever the count allows you to be more specific, it's almost always better because it gets connotation out of the equation. And our job, after all is to try to perfect communication -- make sure the message sent is most likely the message received.

So what is Bierbauer really doing? Well, after almost 15 years and at age 74, he's actually retiring. So that would be the better word.

Longtime USC communications dean to retire

Word order
Some have noted that Bierbauer said in his letter that "this is not retirement." Granted, but we are journalists, not stenographers, and so we have to apply some reasoning. But this also highlights the nuances.

Most journalists I know never really admit to retiring. They can always scribble, after all. And "emeritus" status at a university is like being a retired federal judge or commissioned military officer -- you can always be called out of retirement. (Style warning: Never call someone a "former" general, etc., unless he or she has renounced the commission or somehow been dishonorably discharged.)

This is what Bierbauer wrote: For now, this is not retirement, but transition. I plan to work on the Watson-Brown journalism history project, hope to do some writing on media and politics and determine ways I might continue to be useful to the college and university.

So he is retiring as dean. Which gets us to word order. Since we're dealing with an online hed, we can more easily switch things around:

Bierbauer to retire as longtime USC communications dean

That maintains the sense that he's retiring as dean. (If space is an issue, take out "longtime.")

While this may seem nit picking -- after all, the original hed was serviceable -- this gets to journalistic craft. There used to be time -- admittedly not much, but still a little -- to reflect on these things in the course of putting out the "daily miracle." We need to figure out how to preserve that in this hamster-wheel world journalists now exist in.

On an end note, it's been a pleasure working with Dean Bierbauer, who came on board at USC a year after I did. He's been a steady hand at the tiller and always a proponent of good journalism and good journalism teaching. He understood that delicate balance we walk between the academic and professional missions of the school. I wish him the best.

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