But that success has spawned a host of imitators in the click-baiting, headline-writing department. These types of headlines can get you in trouble before we ever read the posts that go with them:
The unwieldy construction
Just stumbled across HuffPo headline: "Woman Who Killed Hit Man Hired By Husband Speaks Out." Cannot tell what's noun, verb, subject, objectCue journalists and grammar fans (including me) shaking heads, bemoaning the demise of the copy desk, which used to catch cumbersome headlines like this one. You'd save two characters to say, "Hear From Woman Who Killed Hit Man Hired by Husband," with a clearer result, and you'd only add a few more to add "Her" before "Husband," making it clearer who was married to whom. I'd love to see your rewrites in the comments, please--this one is a good exercise to pass around to the writers in your communications office.
— Sarah Milstein (@SarahM) June 3, 2014
The unscientific conclusion
Now we know how many women get groped by men in public: http://t.co/liiyOlmk93 pic.twitter.com/UmOOxvOPoR
— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) June 6, 2014
No, actually, we don't know how many women get groped in public by men--not from this study, a nationwide survey of just over 2,000 people in the U.S. on an issue that's plagued by underreporting. The group sponsoring the study is an advocacy group, but this headline belongs to Mother Jones, a reputable journalistic publication. Jumping to conclusions is a common marketing ploy, and the sign that those tweeting and writing these headlines missed that part of journalism training that advises you never to generalize. Saying "everyone had a great time at the picnic" is bound to unearth the two people who broke up that day, the person who got food poisoning and the ones plagued by ants. Don't do it in your stories, and don't do it in the headline. This type of study is so rarely attempted that it would have been news without the overstated, overreaching headline.
The critical missing word
Study Finds Humans Have Dozens of Universal Expressions, screamed the headline. Since I coach speakers and have written about the difficulties of speaking for international audiences or in your second language, my reading of that headline was that--surprisingly--there might be some universal turns of phrase.
Not so, friends. The expressions in question? Facial expressions. One word would have clarified that headline, still making it of interest to me. It's almost more work to omit it than to include it.
The vague attribution
I'm lucky to know Jonathan Mann, the "Song a Day Guy," who has written and posted a song a day on YouTube for a looooong time. But when he does a clever song with a news hook, as he did when he set Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's Supreme Court dissent in the Hobby Lobby case to music, the attribution disappears in the headlines. Salon posted it as "Someone just turned Justice Ginsberg's blistering Hobby Lobby dissent into a song." "Someone," aka Mann, acknowledged on Facebook, "It really is true that "some dude" or "this guy" or "someone" always goes more viral than "Jonathan Mann". So funny." Also lazy. Back in the day, we headline writers had to get clever when fitting names into headlines, and we didn't get to punt with "someone." I've suggested Mann write a parody version of "If I Needed Someone" to get back at the vogue for the vague. Here's Jonathan Mann's latest "someone" hit:
The faked reaction
"This Woman's Speech Leaves The Audience So Disturbed At Themselves They Can't Move" screams this San Francisco Globe headline, which has been all over my social feeds. Again, this is from an advocacy group. To my speaker-coach eye, this looks like a staged speech with a hired audience. And in fact, the video ends with the speaker walking off stage. You don't actually see what the audience does at the end. Faked audiences--the ones who "ooh" and raise their eyebrows and pay wide-eyed, smiling attention uniformly--never quite manage to seem real. Neither does this headline. As more and more cause-related groups try adopting the tactics of marketing to go viral, let me beg you to consider whether your credibility is worth the approach. In this case, a faked audience and exaggerated headline don't, in fact, convince me this group is credible. Quite the opposite. As I like to say, you're not that desperate for the publicity.
The Bad Pitch blog says:
Tricks for clicks may get you a short-term increase in traffic. But it won't build audience in the long-term. If you're worried you won't attract readers without headline clickbait? Either spend money on headline syndication or come to grips with the fact that your content might suck.
xkcd says it even faster: