There are a lot of unwritten rules in the world of media and journalism, but the most important one is that readers are fucking stupid. I didn’t make it up, I don’t believe it (necessarily), I’m just explaining to you how things work. That means that in order to get these rubes to choke down their news medicine like a haggard dog with tapeworm, you’ve got to wrap it in bacon or peanut butter and trick them into swallowing, even when it’s about something they’re interested in for some amazing reason, like who won the weekend’s box office receipts. The quickest and most effective way to do this is with an eye-catching headline. Headlines are like the face of the news story’s body, which, like most of the stupid faces you see floating around out there in the world, means you often want to smash them into a pulp. Maybe that’s just me?
Since headlines, by their very nature, are supposed to be short and punchy, somewhere along the way we decided that puns, and rhymes, and alliteration are the surest way to grab eyeballs. Why? Laziness, primarily. A deep-rooted hatred for the subject matter you’re covering, for another. Also most headline writers tend to be the least talented member on staff (at least traditionally at news dailies) and their name doesn’t go on the piece, so they don’t give a shit if they trot out one cliched pun after another. As someone who writes a lot about cocktails and bars, I can’t tell you how many dozens of times someone has destroyed my hard work on a story in one fell swoop by plopping a giant steaming turd like “So and So Raises the Bar” at the top. Because it’s a bar, you see?
Speaking of laziness, I wrote about this concept a while ago on my blog, but the lessons contained therein still apply. This type of thing is most common at tabloids, like the New York Post, one of the worst practitioners of reader condescension in the game. Here’s one classic trifecta of headline horror among many thousands they’ve sleuced out down the inky poop chute of obfuscation over the years. As I wrote then, here we have illogical, truncated alliteration: ‘Jets plan Plax play’; pointless rhyming that adds nothing to our understanding of the story: ‘Yanks weep as Sox sweep’, (the Yanks did not weep, we all know this); and the kicker, a serious story reduced to a goofy but recognizable cliche that adds nothing but the repetition of a common cliche that we’ve all heard of.