Why We Keep Reading—and Why We Don’t

It is usually more difficult to teach students how to frame an essay—how to write effective introductory and concluding paragraphs—than how to organize and develop the body of an essay.

Likewise, models of effective framing paragraphs in academic writing are more difficult to locate than those in media writing simply because the details of some news stories demand attention even if we have no idea of what–if anything–the stories might be telling us about contemporary life.

That said, here is my nominee for the most attention-grabbing opening paragraph of a news story in 2014:

“BOSTON – A naked man fell through the ceiling of a women’s bathroom at Logan Airport on Saturday, then ran out of the restroom and viciously assaulted an elderly man while he was still in the buff and bleeding, before being arrested, state police said.”

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But this headline writer seems to be taking it one step farther, by attempting to compress an entire opening paragraph into a headline:

Woman in Sumo Suit

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And here, courtesy of Wilson Gray who posted it to the discussion list of the American Dialect Society, is one of my favorite ambiguous headlines of 2014:

“CRUDE RESUMES FALL.”

The headline has nothing to do with inappropriate job applications but is, instead, reporting the dramatic decline in oil prices.

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Writing for Salon in July, Mary Elizabeth Williams offered the following Huffington Post headline as her nominee for the worst of the year:

“You don’t exactly have high expectations for the folks who gave us Kate Middleton’s “Post-Baby Body One Day After Giving Birth“ or the classic headline, “Fork in Penis Removed after 70-Year-Old Man Stuffs 4-Inch Utensil into His Urethra (PHOTO).” But I’m going to say that today, all other HuffPo headlines must bow down for a new trolling champion. It’s a story about interracial couples. The headline, above a photograph of Halle Berry and Oliver Martinez, is ‘Proof That Once You Go Black, You Never Go Back.

“Accompanying a gallery of 11 couples whom writer Jessica Dickerson says are ‘reminders of how beautiful love can be, no matter what the color of your skin is,’ is the introduction that ‘Some say that, “once you go black, you never go back.” And when it comes to love, some celebrity relationships validate that claim as perfectly.’ And there are fun facts, like how Robert De Niro’s ‘first wife, Diahnne Abbott (1976-1988) was also black.’

“If you want to celebrate love in all its forms, great. But it’s pretty insulting to people of all colors to suggest, in handy click bait gallery form, that when a white person falls in love with and partners with a person of another race, he or she has ‘gone black,’ and is furthermore ‘never going back.’ (There’s another, more practical reason these couples are likely ‘never going back’: they are engaged or bound in holy matrimony.) That’s not really an ‘age-old saying’ as much as, oh, I don’t know, a throwback to a distant era of racial stereotyping. What do you say we never go back?”

To be honest, I find Williams’ pontificating almost as troubling as the headline. If the headline is so obviously offensive, then why is such a pedantic explication of its offensiveness necessary? In choosing to pontificate, I think that Williams has missed the opportunity to explore a somewhat more subtle point: that that racist origins of this sort of slang axiomatic saying become all the more unsettlingly apparent when it is used so casually in a headline, especially a headline to an article on such a trite topic as celebrity relationships.

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In any case, that Huffington Post headline would run a distant second to the worst headline of 2013:

Grapefruit

It appeared in the Mankato (Minnesota) Free Press, and the slice of grapefruit is supposed to look like a “G.”

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BuzzFeed has compiled a list of “25 Tragic Tabloid Covers of 2014 That Are Basically Masterpieces.” The subtitle is, perhaps, more accurate about the content and the effect of the headlines: “New York City tabloid covers delivered the punniest, cringiest, and best-worst headlines of 2014. Can you make it to the bottom of this list without groaning once?” The list is available at: http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryancreed/my-pun-is-bigger-than-yours#.nfw5Q0oNV

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Here is a list of poorly phrased headlines that I have gathered from various sources over the years; several, however, seem deliberately “bad” (for instance, items 48, 49, and 50):

1. CRIME: SHERIFF ASKS FOR 13.7% INCREASE.

2. OUTLAW TO ANNOUNCE THREE POLICE PROMOTIONS. [Outlaw was the oxymoronic name of the chief of police.]

3. MAYOR SAYS D.C. IS SAFE EXCEPT FOR MURDERS.

4. HIGH-CRIME AREAS SAID TO BE SAFER.

5. SLOW DRIVER ARRESTED AFTER FOUR-COUNTY CHASE.

6. NO CAUSE OF DEATH DETERMINED FOR BEHEADING VICTIM.

7. TERRORIST BOUGHT BOMB PARTS AT K-MART.

8. THIEVES STEAL BURGLAR ALARM.

9. SON MISTAKES MOM FOR BIRD, SHOOTS HER.

10. DISMEMBERED VICTIM NOT A PLEASANT FELLOW.

11. POLICE RECOVER STOLEN HAMSTER, ARREST 3.

12. DOG THAT BIT TWO PEOPLE ORDERED TO LEAVE TOWN.

13. ONE-LEGGED MAN COMPETENT TO STAND TRIAL.

14. MAN SAYS BODY IS HIS WIFE, BUT SHE TELLS POLICE IT ISN’T.

15. MAN, SHOT TWICE IN HEAD, GETS MAD!

16. NEIGHBORS SAY SNIPER NOT VERY NEIGHBORLY.

17. CAMPUS KILLER TO REMAIN IN PRISON DESPITE APOLOGY.

18. POPE TO BE ARRAIGNED FOR ALLEGEDLY BURGLARIZING CLINIC.

19. LONDONER FATALLY INJURED BY TURNIP.

20. 140 MILES OF SEWERS TAPED FOR TELEVISION VIEWING.

21. BLIND WORKERS EYE BETTER WAGES.

22. AREA MAN WINS AWARD FOR NUCLEAR PLANT ACCIDENT.

23. DENTISTS FAVOR BREAST-FEEDING.

24. POSTAL SERVICE SEEKING WAYS TO DELIVER MAIL MORE SLOWLY.

25. HELICOPTER POWERED BY HUMAN FLIES.

26. CAR HAUNTS OWNER FROM GRAVE.

27. SURPRISE OPEN HOUSE PLANNED FOR HILLOCKS.

28. THREE AMBULANCES TAKE BLAST VICTIM TO HOSPITAL.

29. SALVATION ARMY ENCOURAGES HOMELESS PEOPLE TO CALL HOME FOR HOLIDAY.

30. NUDIST CAMP DONATES CLOTHING FOR VICTIMS.

31. NO NEED TO KILL POOR; THEY’RE KILLING THEMSELVES.

32. US SAYS INSECT PARTS, RAT HAIR ARE OK IN FOOD.

33. PET COOKING CONTEST COMING TO HIGHLAND.

34. TEACHER DIES; BOARD ACCEPTS HIS RESIGNATION.

35. MORTUARY ADDS DRIVE-THROUGH.

36. NEW STUPID WAY TO DIE DISCOVERED.

37. MAN STUCK ON TOILET; STOOL SUSPECTED.

38. CIRCUMCISIONS CUT BACK.

39. BLOW TO HEAD IS COMMON CAUSE OF BRAIN INJURY.

40. LOW PAY REASON FOR POVERTY, STUDY SAYS.

41. EXPERTS ARE SURE THE DOW WILL EITHER RISE OR DECLINE.

42. DRAIN PLUG LOCATED AT THE BOTTOM.

43. DON’T LEAVE KIDS ALONE WITH MOLESTER.

44. STORM DELAYED BY BAD WEATHER.

45. MARRIED WOMEN CAN ENTER THE MRS. ARIZONA PAGEANT.

46. FOR WOMEN ONLY: FREE CONFIDENTIAL PREGNANCY TESTS.

47. SPERM-DONOR PROJECT MAY BOOST CHICKEN INDUSTRY.

48. NOTHING FISHY ABOUT THIS: SPAM SUSHI’S A HIT AT S.J. RESTAURANT.

49. ONCE-SAGGING CLOTH DIAPER INDUSTRY SAVED BY FULL DUMPS.

50. HEMORRHOIDS INSPIRE RESPECTFUL HINDSIGHT.

 

5 thoughts on “Why We Keep Reading—and Why We Don’t

  1. I will reblog this on my You Knew What I Meant. Meanwhile, I offer you one from some years ago, when I read this in the local paper shortly after my arrival in town as a new professor: HOOKER MOMS PLAN ORPHAN BENEFIT. (The story described a fund-raiser for a local orphanage, sponsored by the PTA of the Thomas Hooker School. The Thomas Hooker School was a public school named for the founder of Connecticut Colony. For a newcomer, though, “hooker moms” had a whole different implication.)

  2. Pingback: “Hooker Moms Plan Orphan Benefit.” | You Knew What I Meant

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