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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READERS: Headlines can stir up heaps of trouble

By Maggie Walter
January 18, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CST

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:

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:

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 ColumbiaMissourian.com 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 ColumbiaMissourian.com. One of her favorite pages on Facebook is www.facebook.com/grammarly. It's smart and sassy about all things grammar, with a heaping serving of life lessons, too.