DEAR READERS: Headlines can stir up heaps of trouble

Friday, January 18, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 8:23 p.m. CST, Friday, January 18, 2013

COLUMBIA — During the intersession break, Clyde Bentley, an associate professor in journalism who usually teaches digital news classes that focus on how users connect to new media, decided to spend a couple of nights on the copy desk at the Missourian.

It was a sort of an old home visit for Clyde, who for about 25 years worked on newspapers among the glue pots and the ink stains before switching to the cleaner environs of ivory towers. He missed the hubbub, the camaraderie, the challenge of writing a one-column, four-word headline for a complex topic. He came through his stint as a visiting editor unscathed, and the production crew greatly appreciated his talented help.

Clyde was quick to express his glee about writing newspaper headlines again. As someone who has been in those same ink-smeared rooms, I recognized the satisfaction of finding the exact right word and enjoyment of the silliness of offering up a pun or two before getting down to the work of writing a serious headline.

Most of Clyde's headlines ran in print as he had written them. But there were one or two that we tweaked for clarity and tone and to stave off a bit of embarrassment. None of Clyde's headlines qualify as bloopers, but there are many headline writers — past and present — who I'm sure wish they could have one more shot at writing a better one.

I suspect that's especially true of the writers whose work appears in "Correct Me if I'm WRONG," a collection of questionable headlines from newspaper pages displayed at the Newseum. Organized by the Columbia Journalism Review in 2008, the compilation is a fun romp through the unintentional (one hopes), the embarrassing and the scandalous.

For example:

  • Marijuana issue sent to joint committee (Toronto Star, June 14, 1996)
  • Police stop slaying suspect look-alikes (Yakima (Calif.) Herald-Republic, Aug. 26, 2001)
  • $3 million verdict to injured detective cut nearly in half (New York Law Journal, Nov. 25, 1987)
  • Some adults grow into blemishes (The Olympian, Olympia, Wash., July 9, 2005)
  • Tips to prevent headaches after you die (The Record, Hackensack, N.J., Jan. 22, 2004)
  • Navy changes skirt policy, making apparel optional (San Diego Union-Tribune, Oct. 18. 2004)

Here's another brief sample of "what were you thinking" headlines that I use as the don't-do-this examples in the advanced news editing class:

  •  Police offer $1,000 reward for shooting suspect
  • New, old issues will be focus of upcoming year
  • Violent crime down; homicides increase

Some of those examples barely make sense after several readings, but in defense of copy editors everywhere, it's easier than one might imagine to get lost in "fitting" the headlines over making sense of the story or spelling every word correctly. I know that all too well as I've been there, done that way too many times.

Show Me the Errors participants, however, help avoid those kinds of dooziewhoppers as we use their entries to quickly clean up any errors. In December, Jennifer Liu provided such service when she pointed out "Newton" in a headline should be "Newtown."

In all, five participants joined in the December contest with 19 corrections. The winner of the drawing is Steven Sapp, who submitted two corrections. He will receive a Missourian T-shirt and a copy of "The Professor and The Madman" by Simon Winchester.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at One of her favorite pages on Facebook is It's smart and sassy about all things grammar, with a heaping serving of life lessons, too. 

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Michael Williams January 18, 2013 | 4:17 p.m.

What is " wetweaked"?

PS: 4th paragraph

(Report Comment)
Tony Black January 18, 2013 | 5:27 p.m.

Attaboy Mikey. Keep catching those errors!

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 18, 2013 | 10:09 p.m.

TonyB: Thanks for reminding me what a "wet-weaked" is.

If'n I find another error and win with only two, I'm not gonna ask for ""The Professor and The Madman".

I'm gonna ask for a pristine copy of the 10 lb version of Steyermark's "Flora of Missouri."

The cover is falling off my 1970 one. Guess I used it a bit much..........

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