Why Is the Washington Post Asking Me?

By Mike Feinsilber

Newspapers are supposed to tell and show, not show and ask. But headline writers at the Washington Post frequently resort to raising questions.

Take the Post of September 23, 2014. In the A section, we find a headline asking:

No White

House dinner

For Modi?

My reaction: If the Post doesn’t know if the new prime minister of India isn’t going to be invited to dine there, how should I?

The Metro section comes question-free on this day, but the sports section has one:

Soriano secures a save on Sunday,

But is the reliever playoff-ready?

The newspaper’s headlines in its Style section on this sample day also ask no questions, but Style’s headline over one story promises to answer a question that apparently has been bugging us. The headline says:

Why Obama loves the Jefferson Hotel

Within the story, questions arise: “Why the affinity for the Jefferson?” Style offers three possible answers: “First there’s the old real estate maxim: location, location, location.” (The hotel is near the White House.) The story also notes that the hotel’s wine cellar “features a door used for inconspicuous egress.” So maybe Obama loves the Jefferson because he can slip in unnoticed. Then the question: “Is it (the wine cellar door) really used so frequently by the president that hotel staff calls it the ‘Barack entrance’ as Conde Nast Traveler claims? She (PR person Meaghan Donohue) isn’t saying.” Or a third possibility presents itself: the hotel owner is a generous Democratic donor.

On to the Health & Science section, with a front page question in capital letters the answer to which a lot of tattooed people probably would like to know:







The story reports that “no clear link” exists between tattoos and cancer but contaminated tattoo ink can cause infections.

Health & Science has other questions for readers:

Which screenings do you need?


A Refuge, But for How Long? (About a national wildlife refuge on Maryland’s eastern shore where Chesapeake Bay waters kill trees.)


Ready for 12 billion people on Earth?

And one final question from the Washington Post:

But can a banana peel stop a nosebleed?

The Post doesn’t know the answer to that, either, and the question was jocular. The story reported that Japanese scientists had studied the hazards of stepping on banana peels and won a prize for innovative research.

My instinct, when I see a headline ending with a question mark, is to shrug, say to myself “No news here,” and move on. If science discovers that tattooing causes cancer, we can be sure the headline would say that, no questions asked.

In fairness, let me acknowledge that Post headline writers are handicapped by the paper’s use of a klutzy headline font that doesn’t leave much room for nuance. Tweet writers have far more leeway.
Mike Feinsilber spent a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. 




  1. A followup: More question heads in the 9/24/14 Washington Post:

    The head on the lead story in Style: “Can a new view draw a crowd?” The deck: “National Museum of the American Indian shifts its narrative toward a mainstream approach with the hope of reaching a larger audience.”

    Jump head in Style: “Can commuters pass Bell’s encore?”

    Metro column: “Does it have to be on video to get us to do the right thing?”

    What most question heads have in common is the reader won’t find the answer in the story. A question head gets written when the headline writer reads the story and it doesn’t clearly say or conclude anything. So the headline writer says, what the hell, I’ll just let the head ask what the story is about and the reader can try to figure it out.

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