Fixes for Ambiguous Headlines

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Headlines that can be read more than one way, or that contain a confusing or erroneous element, have been a source of amusement for journalists and newshounds–and of consternation for the perpetrators–since the dawn of written mass communication, but anyone who writes or edits should be aware of the dangers of careless headline writing. Here are several headlines that prompt a double take.

1. “Gadhafi Forces Retreat”
This could be interpreted as meaning “Gadhafi compelled rebels to retreat” or “Gadhafi’s military units were compelled to retreat” — two readings about as diametrically opposed as possible. Space is often a consideration in print publications, requiring verbal shortcuts and curt words, but “Gadhafi’s Forces Retreat” or “Gadhafi Forces Foes to Retreat,” depending on the intended message, adds no more than a few characters.

2. “Second Toddler Found in Pool Also Dies at Hospital”
This headline reads as if the toddler died twice — once in the pool, and then again at the hospital. The explanation that two toddlers had been retrieved from a pool, and that one had already died at the hospital, should be introduced in the article, not in the headline. The solution is to not attempt to make a reference to the first toddler at all: “Second Toddler Found in Pool Dies at Hospital.”

3. “Retiring Police Officer’s Novel Tactics”
This headline can be read three ways, listed in increasing order of likelihood: 1) “A shy police officer’s unusual tactics,” 2) “A police department is ceasing to use a police officer’s unusual tactics,” and 3) “Unusual tactics of a police officer about to retire.” (The headline could also be referring to a full-length work of fiction — perhaps the officer, now retired from law enforcement, is applying his or her knowledge of police tactics to the plot of a novel — but that misreading is unlikely.)

The headline’s intended meaning is the third one, and though no one is likely to assume otherwise, the ambiguity is nevertheless distracting. “Novel Tactics of a Retiring Police Officer” has only three more characters and spaces than the original headline, and although retiring could still be misconstrued as referring to a personality trait rather than cessation of a career, that’s a stretch; the inverted word order makes the context clearer, diminishing the probability of initial confusion.

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6 thoughts on “Fixes for Ambiguous Headlines”

  1. Good topic. My favorite headline from the 90’s, “Women to Repeat Fateful [Amelia] Earhart Journey”.

  2. I hate when I have to do a double- or triple-take when reading a headline. Really defeats the purpose of having a headline, if it’s going to take that long to understand. However, in your 3rd example, the likelihood that the word “retiring” could be construed to mean “shy,” at least in this case, is nil. Since we know that newspapers strive for maximum oomph with the fewest characters, they surely would have used the word shy (only 3 characters) if that’s what they had meant! I like the idea that the retiring officer is now writing a novel LOL

  3. “Second Toddler Found in Pool Also Dies at Hospital”

    From this headline, I read that two toddlers were found in a pool.

    And both died in the hospital.

    The also that was you removed. signified the second baby died, as well as the first

  4. I have one from the Hindustan TImes, New Delhi dated June 4 2013:
    I’ll advise my patients to steer clear of this particular health institution!

  5. I have the feeling some less-reputable news outlets (Yahoo! News comes to mind) intentionally leave headlines ambiguous, hoping readers will assume the stories are more shocking than they really are, so they’ll be more likely to click.

  6. @Dr D P Singh: Toooo funny! We have hospitals like that here too, I’m sure 😉 LOL

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