The Detroit News in the past few days has given us fine examples of what a poor headline and a great headline look like.
The first is a poor headline: poor because it's a lie. Not an exaggeration or stretching of the truth; just a twisting of the facts so many revolutions it can only be called a lie. Here is the headline from the article:
"Terrelle Pryor's guardian: QB will stay at Ohio State"
Here is what the guardian actually said:
"Burns said he spoke to Pryor two days ago. And while they did not discuss specifics about Pryor's football future*, Burns believes his godson intends to play for the Buckeyes this fall". . . ."I think he will stay in school," Burns said. "He likes football. Only time will tell. He could change his mind in a minute." "I hope he does stick it out at Ohio State."
* And here The Detroit News explicitly admits the sole subject of the article wasn't really discussed.
An accurate headline could have been, "When Forced to Give an Opinion, Pryor's Guardian Guesses that Pryor Will Play One More Year, But Really He Has No Clue"
So why lie? Maybe they've adopted an "if you can't beat 'em. . ." approach to competing with internet hyperbole. Maybe they're trying to increase revenue by tricking people into clicking on a headline that promises something it can't deliver on. Whatever the reason, the Detroit News cannot expect to maintain (or regain or whatever your opinion of its current state) its credibility if it can't even write an accurate headline.
If that headline was two steps back, today's headline on Tressel's farewell to his flock brought it one step forward:
"Disgraced Ex-Coach Jim Tressel Says Ohio State Will Beat Michigan Again"
At first that seems like more sensationalist quasi-journalism, especially when compared to the more reserved headlines from other Michigan newspapers. Here's how the Free Press, Michigan Daily, and newspaper formerly known as the Ann Arbor News title the same article:
"Jim Tressel Tells Rally of Fans: Buckeyes Will Beat Michigan Again"
"Tressel Takes Final Jab at Arch-Rival Michigan at Doorstep Rally"
"Jim Tressel Takes Parting Shot at Michigan During Fan Rally at His Home"
Having the first word and prefix in the title be "disgraced" and "ex-" is not sensationalist or misleading: that's the most relevant part of the story. Of all the things Tressel should not be doing right now, it's talking. He had his chance to talk, and he didn't. And then when he had no choice but to talk, he lied. So for Jim Tressel to open his mouth in a public forum should make any football fan want to shove a dirty, sweaty, and signed game jersey down his throat. How much should we care what Tressel says? "Disgraced" and "ex-" tell us everything we need to know and therefore they deserve the most important part of an article: the beginning.
Whether the Detroit News stumbled into credibility in the second headline or not, they're the only ones that got it right.
Links to all articles cited: