Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Shocking Secrets Revealed! the Language of Tabloid Headlines

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Shocking Secrets Revealed! the Language of Tabloid Headlines

Article excerpt

Otto Friedrich has observed that "the average newspaper is simply a business enterprise that sells news and uses that lure to sell advertising space"(194). Whether one would accept this assessment for true hard-news publications, it does seem to be especially appropriate for tabloids, a term used here specifically for newspapers focused on gossip which, as Levin et al. state (article abstract), could concern "mundane events" in the lives of the famous or bizarre events in the lives of the otherwise ordinary. In fact, such newspapers' very job (at least for the Weekly World News, according to its Managing Editor Sal Ivone) is to "sensationalize the stories" they print (Meuse, 43). Since tabloids cannot rely on the hard-news value of their stories (or the reputations of their reporters) to sell copies, they must make use of other attention-getting devices to lure readers. One of these devices is the strategic placement of tabloids at the checkout counters of supermarkets, along with magazines and self-help booklets, so that bored customers might be led to look at them while they wait to pay for their groceries. A second device involves the layout of the front page, with its provocative photos and large, vari-colored, eye-catching headlines, often in block capitals reminiscent of comic-book captions. It is the nature of these headlines that is the focus here - specifically, the various linguistic devices that tend to recur in a fair percentage of headlines from issue to issue and that seem, whether by design or not, to function as lures to the reader's attention.

As a data base for an analysis of these devices, headlines were collected from nine weeks' worth of issues of the four most popular tabloids in America (according to Levin et al., article abstract): the National Enquirer, the Star, the National Examiner, and the Globe. All headlines on the cover of each issue from July 26, Aug. 2, Aug. 9, Aug. 16, Aug. 23, Aug. 30, Sept. 6, Oct. 4, and Oct. 11, 1988, were recorded, an average per week of 4.9 for the National Enquirer, 7.9 for the Star, 5.6 for the National Examiner, and 6.1 for the Globe - a total of 212 (see Appendix A).(1) These headlines were then examined to discover what content-related, rhetorical, and linguistic features could be seen to recur over the nine weeks.

It should be immediately apparent that the foremost device identifiable in tabloid headlines is the use of content-rich vocabulary - words that get the attention of the reader either through reference to a particularly interesting topic (e.g., "romance," "divorce," "sex," "scandal," etc.) or through evoking powerful, often emotional connotations (e.g., "weird," "sizzling," "stripped," etc.) - a device also common in advertising language (see Cook 101+). As early as 1959, Otto Friedrich identified "the art of exaggerating without actually lying" (194) as a key attention-getting device used in tabloid writing (thus, every woman is either "beautiful," "attractive," or "vivacious," depending on whether she is actually pretty, plain, or ugly, respectively [193]), and this sort of "creative" use of words can certainly be seen in current tabloids. In fact, a review of headlines from each tabloid determined that 81.8% of the National Enquirer's, 81.0% of the Star's, 78.0% of the National Examiner's, and 67.3% of the Globe's used at least one (subjectively identified) content- or connotation-loaded word. Compare, for example, a loaded headline like "My Stormy Marriage: By Willard Scott" (Star, 8/9/88) with the bland "Jeane Dixon Answers Your Questions," from the same issue of the Star.

Looking at the topics in more detail, one discovers the expected mix of sex, scandal, and tragedy, paranormal or supernatural phenomena, outrageous behavior, how-to tips on self-improvement (especially dieting) and household tasks, and information about celebrities, outrageous or not (this last category being the most common focus of tabloid articles). Consider the following samples (where the lack of capital letters duplicates the original format): sex: "Surgeon, 70, Makes 11 Nurses Pregnant" (Nat. …

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