Leadlines May Be Better Than Traditional Headlines

By Smith, Edward J. | Newspaper Research Journal, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Leadlines May Be Better Than Traditional Headlines


Smith, Edward J., Newspaper Research Journal


Newspaper headlines are difficult and costly to write and often dangerous to publish. Headlines can mislead readers and sometimes hurt feelings and provoke lawsuits.(1)

Leadlines - the lead of the story set in display type and used like a headline - are not commonly used by newspapers now but may be an alternative that avoids many headline problems and saves time and money.

This experimental research asks whether leadlines could complement current headline practices as an effective way to introduce and communicate story information on newspaper pages.

Literature review

Headline and lead functions

Journalism textbooks and professional articles point out that headlines and leads perform similar tasks.(2) In fact, the headline/lead literature lists at least 23 functions, many shared by both headlines and leads.

These 23 functions were divided with 83 percent agreement into three sets by three professional journalists. They selected six functions that sold the story to the reader. They were: attracts attention to the story; conveys a sense of immediacy; urges reading of story; creates a vivid story impression; lures the reader into the full story and indicates the reward for reading the story.

Ten functions communicated the meaning or content of the story: summarizes story content; sets story tone or mood; communicates information effectively; tells the main idea of the story; reveals major points immediately; clear and easy to understand; accurate in fact; focus and tone; uses specific, precise wording; logical and makes sense; and concise and right to the point.

Another seven functions serve graphic or display functions on the page. They are: indicates importance of the story; makes the page more attractive; makes the page more modern; separates stories on the page; helps scanning of the page; provides cues on nature of the newspaper and indexes stories on the page.

Headline and lead problems

The creation and use of newspaper headlines is a time consuming, costly and difficult professional task.

Doug Underwood, C. Anthony Giffard and Keith Stamm, in a study of the impact of computers on the newspaper editing process showed that headlines are probably taking more time to write and edit now than before computers.(3) About 28 percent of their respondents said that writing headlines takes more time now compared to about 13 percent who reported less time. Editors also said there was less time available for headline work. The authors further noted: "... as the percentage of time spent on what were formerly backshop activities goes up, the priority placed on a number of important journalistic tasks goes down."(4)

Randall Hines and Jerry Hilliard, in a study of editorial quality, examined the extent to which Tennessee newspapers observed established guidelines for writing headlines. They learned that dailies failed to observe traditional guidelines about 30 percent of the time and non-dailies about 40 percent.(5) Theodore E. Conover, in his book on graphics, condemned headlines claiming that "The traditional headline form is difficult to write and often it is necessary to use inaccurate or inappropriate words because of the rigid unit count."(6)

Headlines are error prone. In a 1964 study of inaccuracies in one week's issue of the Gainesville (Florida) Sun it was shown that headlines contained incorrect facts (42 percent of errors) and distortion and exaggeration (34 percent of errors).(7)

Similar problems with newspaper leads are often presented as journalistic errors to be avoided. For example, Fred Fedler, John Bender and Lucinda Davenport provide a list of problems lead writers should avoid.(8) And Carol Rich lists 10 defective lead types.(9) Melvin Mencher reports that advertising and news writers share headline and lead problems. "Advertising copywriters say that finding the few words for the headline or lead-ins is the toughest part of the job. …

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