Writing Headlines: Why So Many Questions?

By Jack Limpert

In an editor’s column in The Washingtonian, I once wrote a note to readers saying that when they saw a question head in a magazine or newspaper, they’d never find the answer in the story. I tried to be playful about it, but a journalism professor in Baltimore took it seriously and tried to start a fight over it. Okay, I didn’t really mean never, but the fact is that most question heads are a dodge by the headline writer. I sweated over many a headline—What is this story saying?—and then made the headline a question.

Will some research on a rainy Sunday show that most question heads aren’t answered in the story? Are they mostly the headline writer saying: “Dear Reader, Maybe you can figure out what the writer is saying?” Let’s check out this Sunday’s Washington Post.

Front section: Not a single question head.

Outlook: “Can Janesville survive Paul Ryan?” and ” Could places like the small, park-studded city where he grew up be healed by the ideas that catapulted him onto the GOP presidential ticket?” The story runs through a list of federal programs that Ryan opposed but might have helped Janesville. But the story dodges the real questions:  Are those federal programs effective? Are those federal programs the best way to go at the city’s problems? The story skips those.

Book World: “Want your child to become a great novelist? Be a bad parent.” It’s a  review of New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, by Colm Tolbin. Okay, Tolbin has 15 essays about writers who had unhappy families. Sure, the headline is sometimes true.

Sports and Metro: No question heads. That’s why those are the first two sections I read every day. Just the facts, the scores, the obits. No questions.

Business: “Where has the mom-and-pop retail investor gone?” The story doesn’t tell you where mom and pop have taken their money, but it does try to answer the question of why they’ve fallen out of love with equities. It warns the reader: “The short answer is that there is no single answer. It is complicated, not reducible to a single variable analysis.” Can’t blame the headline writer for not going down that path.

Sunday Style: “The funniest state in the country? North Carolina.” It turns out that Zach Galifianakis, co-star of the movie, The Campaign, is from North Carolina. So is the writer of the film. So are other writers who have contributed to funny television shows and movies. David and Amy Sedaris grew up there. And the tradition of funny writers from North Carolina goes back to before the Civil War. A pretty good case for North Carolina being funny but who knows about funniest.

Post Magazine: The head on Date Lab is “Foiled by footwear? And is texting an evil habit?” Scott, a political analyst, says that Catherine, a science writer, was wearing flats when they met for a blind date in a restaurant and that “kind of rubbed me the wrong way.” At the end of the date, he’s “not going to do the thing where people exchange a couple of text messages and then go back to their previous lives. Now that I’m 30, texting and tweeting and all that is evil.” Okay, that kind of explains the question heads. The update at the end says that they made plans for a second date but Catherine cancelled and hasn’t returned Scott’s calls, saying, “I’ve been really busy.” Scott, miffed by Catherine’s not returning his calls, now says, “It only takes 15 seconds to send a text saying that you decided no. That approach shows a serious lack of class, in my opinion.” Or maybe good sense.

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