Obstables to headlines

The thing about working in newspapers is it keeps you humble.

The thing about working in newspapers is it keeps you humble. You don’t make your mistakes in private or for only a few co-workers to know about. You make them in black and white for all to see. (And later remind you about).

That’s why an email from a co-worker this week generated a few belly laughs when it was circulated. It illustrated a number of misbegotten headlines that somehow made their way onto the pages of newspapers around the globe. While I found them funny, I also felt considerable sympathy because I know how, in the heat of deadlines, mistakes can get made. I’ve written a few stinkers myself that, fortunately for me, my eagle-eyed co-workers have managed to catch before they appeared in print.

Sadly these editors were not so lucky. Here’s a sampling:

Headlines are supposed to try and sum up exactly what’s in an article but sometimes the conclusion can be painfully obvious – as in these headlines:

Bridges help people cross rivers (Really?)

Bugs flying around with wings are flying bugs (Yup.)

Federal agents raid gun shop, find weapons (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?)

Diana was still alive hours before she died

Statistics show teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25 (And you should see how the graph looks once you hit retirement age.)

Homicide victims rarely talk to police

Then there’s word play. These mistakes can get you when you least expect it.

Like this one from the Toronto Star — Marijuana issue sent to a joint committee

or, Rally against apathy draws a small crowd

or the ever ironic, Meeting on open meetings is closed.

You also have to be especially careful when writing headlines about literacy. They seem to be a lightning rod for mistakes. Take these for example.

Missippi’s literacy program shows improvement. (If only the writer had remembered the M-I-SS-I-SS-I-PP-I chant of my childhood.)

Illiteracy an obstable, study finds. (Well, we all have our own obstables to overcome.)

We at the Observer have had a few gems of our own. Once, White Cane Week, designed to raise money for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, somehow ended up in the paper as White Canoe Week.

Another of our headlines actually ended up on late night talk show host David Letterman’s semi-regular feature on newspaper blunders.

The story was about how a delegation of teachers approached the school board about including additional class time to cover sexual health issues.

The resulting headline: Teachers want more time for sex.

The double entendre was worth a few eyebrows. Indeed, David Letterman raised his, and that’s saying something.

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