July 8, 2008 By Chad Vander Veen
A nuclear attack on Washington, D.C., which would kill tens of thousands of Americans, is inevitable and will happen within 20 years. At least, that's according to a headline on The Drudge Report. The fearsome phrase links to a more level-headed story by The Washington Post about a hypothetical nuclear disaster. The story quotes Cham E. Dallas, who runs the Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia. Dallas said "it's inevitable" when referring to a nuclear attack on the district. Perhaps it is, but one person saying so probably doesn't justify such a headline.
Of course, this sort of inflammatory rhetoric is typical of headlines and always has been. If it bleeds, or if it might bleed at a later date, it leads. Consider this terrifying headline from The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee: Amtrak Train Strikes, Kills Man in West Sacramento. Really? From that headline, one might conclude that a sentient - and evidently evil - train derailed itself with the sole purpose of selecting a victim to murder.
Headlines don't always involve breathless hyperbole. Sometimes they're just stupid. CNN, for example, asked readers: Does Your House Have Ghosts? In 2005, Voice of America News declared: Health Study Shows Males and Females are Different. A couple years ago, The Associated Press let us in on this helpful tidbit: Osama Bin Laden Keeping a Low Profile. Wow, really? And according to The Toronto Star, TV Watchers Watch TV.
Some headlines are actually quite clever. Last year, Canada's CANOE network reported a Sharp Decline in Knife Attacks. Still others are simply boring or uninspired - something we here at Government Technology are occasionally guilty of. A story we ran in 2006 came with the headline Planning Ahead, which is about as unexciting - and uninformative - as a headline can get. However, we've also featured horribly dull headlines that are, in fact, quite informative. April 2006's Electronic Tolls left little doubt as to what the story was about.
The point is, a lot of what we're exposed to by the media isn't always what it appears to be. Being a part of the media, I know very well what goes - or doesn't go - into the creation of a headline. When the public sector issues a news release, the headline is usually straightforward. Sure, government is rarely sexy, but at least citizens know what they're getting. Although, occasionally I wouldn't mind seeing a release that led with something like: Software Goes Live, Devours Office.
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