I am in search of an ambiguous news headline.

Not just any ambiguous news headline, such as "Missing woman remains found", "Red tape holds up new bridge" or "Squad helps dog bite victim", but an ambiguous news headline where all meanings are actually correct.

I find myself drawn to ambiguity in creative writing, particularly in poetry. It can allow for subtlety in writing, and there’s something about knowing your readers can interpret your message in their own different ways.

However, in journalistic writing, ambiguity can be dangerous.

There is something that brings me joy in deliberately misinterpreting headlines. If a headline is ambiguous, people will read it out of context, sometimes just for the fun of it.

Comically ambiguous headlines have been around since news reporting began, and many of these double entendres (in some cases triple or quadruple entendres) have been elevated to near-mythical status, as discussed in an article by Ben Zimmer from the New York Times.

Although there is occasional deliberate ‘tongue in cheek’ use, such as a dig at Northland’s member of parliament by Weather Watch during Cyclone Winston with the headline “Winston peters out, Northland relieved”, these headlines are more regularly unintentional, sometimes with spectacular results.

Since the mid-1990s, the internet has made it easier to share bad headlines. With the ability to share on social media, there is increasing focus on these headlines, termed ‘Crash Blossoms’ by linguistics blog Language Log to signify their devastating impact. Websites like Mashable base much of their popularity on finding and exposing these ‘fails’.

Is it juvenile of me to laugh at bloopers like “Missing woman remains found” and “Marijuana issue sent to a joint committee”? Maybe, but if it’s written that way, someone will.

Sometimes it’s not a matter of content, but of context. Your content can be excellent, but your audience chooses the context in which they read it. If a message is presented incorrectly, it can be misunderstood, support somebody else’s message or even become a laughing stock.

Layout can be a major issue too. No matter how well written your copy is, the message can be lost if it is placed next to the wrong content, as illustrated by Buzzfeed’s Luke Lewis.

The worst cases involve sensitive situations, especially when people are grieving. In a digital format, there are many situations in which a mistake can be remedied if you react quickly enough, so it’s always best to double check.

In practice, the headline is your chance to grab the reader’s attention. Think of how much of your time and effort goes into writing the content for your publications. If people don’t read past a bad headline, what’s the point?

The remedy?

  • Use headlines that are clear and don’t have double meanings, unless you are sure all meanings are in context
  • Read your communications out loud to see how they sound
  • Read everything carefully. If you’re not sure it works, don’t put it out there
  • If you’re emotional about a subject, take a breather and review it when you are calm
  • Use a colleague as a ‘sounding board’
  • e-newsletters: Send test emails, and think about the devices your audience will use to read their emails to avoid presentation problems.

In short, your audience will choose what they read from your message, but the options you provide them with are up to you.

And don’t forget – if you can find an elusive headline with five (or more) correct meanings, let me know: Fraser@lastwordwriting.co.nz.

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