Headlines and innuendo always need 2nd look

Posted: January 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , | View Comments

South Carolina's "Gamecock" mascot is fit for ribbing.

Three days after Florida State won the Chick-fil-A Bowl, it’s twice-weekly student newspaper, the FSView & Florida Flambeau, published a front page headlined with bold innuendo.

Dan Reimold at College Media Matters has a nice roundup of reactions from Twitter, including one from ESPN Radio out of Tallahassee, Fla. They’re mostly positive. But he also asks a serious question about the headline’s journalistic value.

Is it hilarious or cringe-inducing, creative or beyond cliché, journalistic or just-plain vulgar?

Journalists love puns — probably way more than they should. Throw in a little sexual innuendo, and you’ve got newsroom gold. You don’t have to look far to prove it either. As visual journalist Charles Apple points out, sex puns aren’t rare for tabloids like the Daily News, but even The Wall Street Journal’s copy desk gets in on the fun with their A1 heds.

I’m not a huge fan of most “punny” headlines, simply because they’re rarely as clever as their creators think. They can also get you into trouble if you’re not careful, as the Sun learned the hard way in 1982. But when they’re good, they’re often really good, and they can engage the reader in an incredibly effective way.

There are a lot of rules for effective headline writing out there, many of them common sense. But I have two golden ones I consider long before I pull out my crossword puzzle dictionary to find short synonyms, check where it the sentence splits or ensure my hed isn’t not unfortunately juxtaposed with a photo.

  1. Does it entice your audience to read the story?
  2. Is it supported by the facts in the story?

If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then you’re good to go.

In this case, I think the headline worked well, especially given the audience of football-rabid Seminoles. It’s attention-grabbing and clever. It’s also fun, and that’s an important tenet of any college newspaper (even if it is owned by Gannett).

The thing to remember about pun heds is that you need to shop them around. “Clever” is often in the eye of the beholder, so sharing your work with the rest of the newsroom will often stop your dud joke from bombing with your audience. That technique is so successful, it’s what the Onion staff uses to determine whether their satire headlines are good enough to weave into full stories.

Bad puns are a dime a dozen, so when in doubt, don’t.

Hat tip to Pack Pride‘s Derek Medlin for making me think twice on this one. Read his sports blog or follow him on Twitter.



  • http://twitter.com/andybechtel Andy Bechtel

    It would have been more effective if FSU had won on a blocked kick or similar play. Instead, it just looks sophomoric.

    Here’s a good guide for whether a pun headline works, courtesy of Steve Merelman, former front-page editor at the N&O:

    http://editdesk.wordpress.com/2009/02/04/pun-headline-form/

  • http://twitter.com/mtdukes Tyler Dukes

    That’s fantastic Andy! Thanks for sharing!

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