Headlines are a tricky and high-stakes business in the attention economy.
They’re the first — and sometimes the only — part of an article that people see, and by their virtues can inspire folks to share an article whether they’ve read it or not.
While smart, funny or provocative headline copy can make or break an article’s presence on the Internet — the results can also be at worst deeply misleading and/or inflammatory, or at least desperate and/or trivial.
What we’re going for
At The Daylighter, we’re aiming for an ethical balance of intrigue, personality or voice, and plainspoken truth-telling.
We also have two major headline styles we want to avoid — the stodgy, stuffy, quasi-academic self-importance of Major Institutional News Media, and also the lazy partisanship of today’s “us vs. them” political climate.
We aren’t quite sure we always get it right.
Two recent articles we published highlight this copywriting challenge.
The Parchman Penitentiary problem
Our roundup on appalling conditions in Parchman State Penitentiary in Mississippi sports the headline “Prison in Mississippi is torture,” and yes, the usage is intended to provoke you into clicking the article.
It’s also an attempt to not be coy, and simply emphasize the facts — inmates are dying, the prison is underfunded, conditions are appalling.
However, the issue of whether this is “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore unconstitutional is the subject of a federal lawsuit currently playing out in the courts.
We’re clearly taking sides here, and furthermore, our usage is highlighting the lawsuit’s primary arguments.
On the other hand — our focus as a news organization is to advance human rights and democratic process, and shine a light on abuses by the powerful over the powerless.
Furthermore, many of the facts we are calling upon are established in reporting by news organizations we respect and cite in the article.
But still, there’s that lingering feeling that we didn’t quite get it right. That the tone was too bald, too bold, too blunt.
We’re sticking with the headline — but, what do you think? How does it read to you, in comparison to the issues of the story and the ethics of our practice?
“Legal pollution” — is it a thing?
A different sort of nuance comes into play with our roundup about mining giant Freeport-McMoran’s purchase of 17,000 acres of public land in Arizona, which will be used for a dump for toxic, sludgy tailings from its nearby copper-mining operations.
The headline, “This giant Arizona mining dump will be able to legally pollute under new federal rules,” references the rollback by President Trump’s EPA of Clean Water Act protections nationwide.
Under the revised regulatory regime, the dump will be exposed to seasonal waterflows — which means that throughout the winter rainy season, when the normally dry desert environment is flushed through with runoff and flash floods from itinerant storm systems, some contaminants from the mining dump will be washed out of the dump itself, and potentially down into local aquifers.
This actually does qualify as pollution — it’s the contamination of a public resource, the water tables, by industrial waste.
So the usage “legally pollute” does end up passing the smell test.
In this particular copy, again, we’re not trying to be coy, aloof, or abstract. We want to call it like we see it, and speak plainly.
What do you think?
Your feedback on all this is most welcome! Please feel free to comment below, or send a letter to the editor; if it’s a good one, we may select it for publication (with your permission, of course).