With a quick apology for the very oblique pun in the title of the post, here’s the offending headline. It comes from the Associated Press, and I think it represents a pernicious evil in contemporary journalism… the ‘paraphrase – source’ headline format.
Three things are wrong with this:
- The headline is inaccurate. Not only are legal rights different from human rights, nobody in the story is arguing chimps should have human rights. The lawyer for the Association Against Animal Factories, an animal rights group in Austria, makes that clear in the piece: “We mean the right to life, the right to not be tortured, the right to freedom under certain conditions… We’re not talking about the right to vote here.”
- It has a vague referent. What group? It only serves to communicate someone other than the journalist said something, an impression not helped when the story contradicts the headline.
- It uses a headline syntax that should be expunged from journalism. First comes a paraphrased statement that can’t even be dignified as a quotation. Then some punctuation. And finally, there’s the clue the statement isn’t something made up by the journalist. In community news there’s, Man bites canine, dog barks. In political journalism we see, Opposition is wrong – politician. In science journalism we have to read, Everything causes cancer: study. Doing this ignores the heart of the story. Some group says something. So what? Chimps Deserve Human Rights, Group Says is not the story. The story is Humans fight over chimps’ legal personhood.
Writers shouldn’t get all of the blame. They don’t usually compose headlines; copy-editors have that job, and they need to know how to write a short, interesting headline that sells the story. Unfortunately, they often don’t have the time or interest in the story to get it right, so they are using the accursed paraphrase – source method of headline generation as a crutch.
Please, journalists, stop doing this. You are wasting print. Just be declaratory. Reveal the story, not a press release.