Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Headlines Are Not Fortune Cookies

Back in Journalism 101, the nice professors professed that a headline rightly reflects the news that unfolds below it. A corollary is: When a page designer peers into the future and speculates about what might happen in that unknown land and time, he/she is writing for a fortune-cookie factory, not a newspaper.

"Students could be off to Mexico" is a fortune-cookie prophecy. The morning story reports a lot must happen before students queue up for their security screening at Tampa International. First, sponsoring teachers must ask for and receive the school board's permission to sign a contract with a favored tour operator. And then, in the words of one of the teachers, they must "recruit and sign up students and chaperons [and] raise the money."

With all that, the page designer could have prophesied with equal certainty that "Students might not be off to Mexico." After all, it's just one headline writer's opinion, and it's time that will tell if his opinion will be borne out by the facts. There'll be a news report.

"California blackens in hurricane-force firestorms," says the Web head. Wrong. The story reports gusts reached 70 mph. As every hurricane savvy editor in southwest Florida knows, hurricane-force winds start at 74 mph -- sustained winds. Small difference? Maybe. But the guiding principle is "Don't lie to the reader, if you can help it."

"Malpractice dilemma eases," says the headline over today's big story. I'm reading and reading and reading, and I find no report of a dilemma. The news is malpractice insurance premiums in Florida have, on the average, declined a little bit, reversing a long trend of large increases. Doctors say there's still reluctance to practice in high-risk specialties, the reporter reports. And even with the slight decline, many doctors still pay $100,000 and more a year for coverage, so more legislative-level tinkering with "tort reform" (rules about who can sue whom and for what) is expected. So where's the dilemma and how did it ease? There isn't one, of course. A page designer thought it looked good, sounded sufficiently snappy and important but still was vague enough to probably work. Readers know real headlines get to the heart of the story; they don't make us wonder what we missed.

And finally...

Over in the local section, instead of news, we have Anne Klockenkemper’s “Now I need a cruise,” leading with the announcement that the writer is back from a week of “living in the wedding universe.” It’s a diary her experience as a bridesmaid to Sarah. She never reports why Sarah’s wedding warrants 24 inches and a photo in the DeSoto edition. Klockenkemper is reporter assigned to a town about 30 miles southwest of here.

Instead of news that might help us better understand southwest Florida (schools, local governments, crime, growth, local economy, what the pols are spending, just for starters) we learn Klockenkemper is tired. We learn she stayed up too late and got up too early while “living in the wedding universe.” Exciting things happened in that universe. She reports giving a toast and some people complimented her on it. She reports dancing the bossa nova. She reports the bride has five sisters, and she reports the first names of her fellow bridesmaids. We read about the sad little gifts (saltwater taffy, for heaven’s sake) in the “out-of-town gift buckets” (did the buckets drive themselves or fly? And gift buckets!), and we read Klockenkemper’s hairdo required 72 bobby pins. And finally, the big news: “Michele, who’s wedding is [sic] in April and for which I’m also a bridesmaid [sic]” is about to start “asking me for help.”

So this is first in a two-part series, maybe? Dear editor: Just writing something down, doesn’t make it news. Just because a reporter attends a event doesn't make the event newsworthy.

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