CHAPEL HILL – The key of a newspaper headline is to serve, basically, two points. Its first objective is to inform the reader about the context of the story. The second is to grab your attention to entice you to read more than just a few randomly selected words in large font.
Sometimes headlines can be spread across the entire page when the article has major significance, such as during a national tragedy, war, or a major local, state, or national story. Other times, the headline is just a small blurb on the corner of a page.
To the headline writers goes an important responsibility and challenge. The writer is responsible to write compress what could be a 750 word article into five or six words. When dealing with a controversial topic, the headline writer faces the challenge of writing a headline that focus on the story’s importance while showing the proper respect and care for the situation.
For the most part headline writers get it right. Sometimes they get it wrong. And on the rarest of occasions, the headline writer goes too far in making a statement regarding the story.
Such was the case regarding a headline in Monday’s The Daily Tar Heel, UNC-Chapel Hill’s student newspaper. An article regarding a presentation of the play “The Vagina Monologues” had the headline of: “Crowed wowed by touching ‘Vagina.’”
It’s not hard to imagine a college-aged student sitting behind a computer in The Daily Tar Heel’s newsroom writing the headline. Most likely the writer, other reporters, and editors at the paper got a good laugh at the phrase. They knew they had reached a sensationalist’s dream – crafting a headline that has double or triple meaning with an audience of college-students many with vivid imaginations.
What purpose does the headline serve other than to shock a reader and place sexual overtones in a headline?
There are many other options that would have been more suitable without the attempt to offend with a vulgar headline. For instance, a headline of “‘Monologues attempt to highlight issues,” would have been more appropriate for the tone of the article, which focused on issues raised by the controversial play.
However, the need to shock the reader is what won out in this case and not the belief that there is a fine line between grabbing a reader’s attention and going over-the-top. A good media ethics course will highlight that there is a give and take between if a story is newsworthy and the quality and reputation of a media publication.
Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many editors at newspapers across the country were faced with an important ethics question of whether or not to publish photos of people jumping out of the burning World Trade Center. Some editors decided to run the photos, because of the news value, while others decided not to, because of the need to preserve the reputation of the media outlet. Similar questions have been posed since then regarding photos of flag-draped caskets from the Iraq war. Even on a daily basis, editors are faced with questions of how to approach a murder or fire scene and balance the need for newsworthy photographs and to respect the needs of the community, paper, and the families.
Does a story on “The Vagina Monologues” raise issues that would require media ethics rules to be thrown out? The answer is simply ‘No.’
A story on “The Vagina Monologues” has little if any news value. But the news value of the story did not require a grotesque headline for a simple article.
To defend the headline as just one from a student-run newspaper is misguided. The editors are those that will be writing the articles and headlines you will read in your favorite local newspapers in the coming months and years. Each editor, writer, and copy desk person has the same responsibilities to its readers as The News and Observer, USA Today, or Washington Post. Chances are headline writers at The News and Observer, USA Today, or Washington Post would never write such a headline.
So why should we receive such a headline from a student newspaper? We shouldn’t.
Shannon Blosser (email@example.com) is a staff writer with the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. He is also an alumnus of the West Virginia University School of Journalism, where he took a course in media ethics.