Saturday, November 19, 2016

Trial by headline

WHICH headline generated more cringes? A broadsheet ran this headline on the day the US voted for its 45th president: “Clinton has 90% chance of winning”.

The headline was a teaser placed in the ear or the spot beside the masthead or the name of the newspaper. In radiant yellow, the ear headline was superimposed on a photo of a celebratory Hillary Clinton. The tips of her extended right hand overlapped a blue ribbon that carried the newspaper’s motto: “Balanced news + fearless views”.

The day after the US elections, I retreated to a coffee shop and sat down with the Nov. 10 issues to check out how the local and national dailies covered the electoral turnout.

I scalded my throat by taking a premature sip of hot tea. The scalding took a back seat after I noted that two national dailies, the “Philippine Daily Inquirer” and the “Philippine Star,” carried identical front-page headlines, “OMG! IT’S TRUMP!”.

I’m an old-fashioned reader. I prefer reading paper over virtual. I buy local, national and international dailies. For my money’s worth, though, I don’t appreciate journalists making up my mind for me.

Segregation is inviolate for news and opinion. Facts—meaning anything that’s verifiable—is found on page one and the news sections. The interpretation of facts—which can be limitless to fit all the biases and agenda the media see fit to carry—is found in the opinion-editorial section of a newspaper.

So why should reading a headline truncated into three capitalized letters be even more dispiriting than a Trump victory? According to online dictionaries of Internet slang, the acronym “OMG” stands for “Oh my God,” an expression of either surprise or disgust.

“Surprise” is neutral enough, compared to “disgust”. However, consider background and context. Aside from running the Nov. 9 ear headline predicting a Clinton victory, the Inquirer threw in an extra exclamation point in their Nov. 10 banner headline to make a slight distinction from the identical Star headline. The “OMG” headlines carried more shock than awe.

These headlines pale in comparison to others that made it to global front pages. According to a Nov. 10 article published online by “The Straits Times,” Trump’s victory did not just bump off “Madam President,” a headline The New York Times never got to use on Nov. 10, it inspired other “flustered headlines”.

“WTF,” the New Zealand paper, “The Dominion Post,” exclaimed in all caps before adding in smaller fonts, “Why Trump Flourished.”

The French newspaper, “Liberation,” carried the photo of a man standing in silhouette against the US flag. Only two features are spotlighted: the top of the man’s toupee and his right hand, cocked as if holding a gun. The headline: “American Psycho”.

Yet, when editors pull out the stops to invent startling headlines like “Trumpocalypse” and “Trumpquake,” or quote Homer Simpson’s 16-year-old prediction of a Trump presidency, I miss the journalism of old.

“Writing is selection,” wrote John McPhee of The New Yorker. In his classic essay, “Omission,” McPhee quotes Ernest Hemingway, who turned simplicity into both the Art and Theory of Omission: “Back off. Let the reader do the creating.”

Under the old rules, when journalists slipped, they owned up to the error. Resigned to the coverage of world leaders like Trump and Duterte, I know better than to sip hot tea when checking out the day’s headlines.

( 0917 3226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s November 13, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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