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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 20, 2003


Headlines must convey main point

By Anne Harpham

Headline writers are confronted by the formidable task of conveying the news of the story accurately, simply and fairly in a very few words.

Sometimes, there are opportunities for a writer to use humor or clever plays on words in a headline. It must, of course, be appropriate.

One headline that appeared on Page B1 Wednesday morning prompted discussion both among ourselves as well as several calls and e-mails from readers.

The story was about the use of diacritical marks in Hawaiian words. The main headline said: "Hawaiian spellings catch on, but slowly." The smaller headline under it said: "Luddites afraid of diacritical mass."

Readers asked if by using the word "Luddites" we were making an editorial comment about people or organizations not using the kahako and 'okina because it requires changes to the word processing programs of computers. The term originates from the Luddites in 19th century England. They were craftsmen who rioted to destroy textile machinery, which was displacing them. Today, it usually refers to someone who has trouble with technological change.

To a lot of people, Luddite is a pejorative term. As one reader

e-mailed: "Calling someone a Luddite implies they are irrationally opposed to progress, but that can't be the intent of the headline writer, can it? Unless I keep missing a relevant reference in the story, that word seems inappropriate and judgmental."

No one in the newsroom thinks the headline writer was being judgmental. News editor Brad Lendon said the copy editor was simply trying to write a clever headline that in a few words conveyed the idea that change was sometimes slow and difficult.

Those of us who work with words appreciate clever turns of phrase, especially in a one-column headline. Those are notoriously difficult to write.

I applaud Lendon and his staff for seeking to write smart, clever headlines.

However, headlines sometimes convey to readers opinions and judgments we don't mean. The danger for any writer is becoming so enamored of a word or phrase that we overlook its literal meaning. It was a clever headline, but one that didn't fit the story.

On July 13, I asked readers for feedback on what you would like to know about the paper.

One asked who decides what headlines to use on the front page and which gets top billing. The reader did not like our choice of leading the paper July 9 with a story that the University of Hawai'i was looking into an accusation that its men's volleyball team used a player with professional experience during the Warriors' national-championship season in 2002.

The reader felt the story on the Legislature's overrides of Gov. Linda Lingle's vetoes was more important.

In the great scheme of things, of course, most people would agree that the issues at the heart of the disputes between the governor and the Legislature are ultimately more important than volleyball, as much as we may be passionate about UH sports.

However, there was not much question that the overrides would pass and the accusations over a player playing in professional games was a shocking development in what was a storied season.

Are we saying volleyball is more important than the issues involved in the veto overrides? No.

Do I think we should have handled the stories differently? On this one, I have to side with the editors who knew there would be a lot of interest in the volleyball story and who didn't see anything new in the override.

Senior editor Anne Harpham is The Advertiser's reader representative. Reach her at 525-8033 or aharpham@honoluluadvertiser.com