Newspaper headlines are supposed to get your attention, and entice you into buying a copy.
A mode in headline-writing has emerged over the last few years – unless I’ve only just noticed a longer-established phenomenon – that really gets my attention but doesn’t so much entice as light my fuse.
There’s a perfectly respectable three-letter word that has any number of valid applications. In fact, you can even insert it at the start of a sentence in such a way that it forms an innocuous pause before you get into the meat of what you’re going to say. If you were feeling uncharitable, you could call it insipid, but it gives a hint that you’re about to launch into something you’d like your audience to pay more attention to.
Now, that’s true when it’s followed by a comma. It’s when it’s not trailed by a modest punctuation mark that it really raises the blood pressure.
Despite its limited length, “now” may be the most cynical, manipulative leading word in modern newspaper writing. It conveys no news. It’s a word steeped in bias and prejudice.
“If you are, as I judge you to be, a good chap or chapess;” it says, “in fine, if you are one of the gang; then you will agree with me that the development I am reporting on is quite the worst thing ever to occur in the history of the human race. It is perpetrated by ignorant, arrogant elitists upon the common man or woman, with no care for the opinion or welfare of the ruled. Worse, it is only the latest manifestation of a long-established pattern of oppression.”
Not bad for three letters; you have to admire its eloquent efficiency.
I may or may not approve of the action at the heart of the story; but that’s my decision to make, and any headline that starts off by telling me what to think is off on the wrong foot. Not just that though; it worries me that “now” has become a convenient shorthand for blaming “them” – the not-we.
Of course, like me, you probably don’t buy the papers that use this device anyway, but it almost makes me wish I did so that I could boycott those headlines. I like to think that “they” could reform themselves; if only to differentiate this, my polemical article, from theirs.
The worst offense that can be committed by a polemic is to stigmatize those who hold a contrary opinion as bad and immoral men.
John Stuart Mill, 1806-73, Lord Rector of the University of St. Andrews 1865-1868