Success and failure can hinge on a single word

Headline mistakes are rarely, in my experience, of a deliberate action. They are almost of an oversight, a mistyping or confusion. And most of the time, it’s but one word or phrase that makes the difference — its spelling, its substitution for the correct word, or its placement.

All this places added pressure on copy editors, writers and bloggers in times of pressing workloads and little support, but the mistakes they make can be made by anyone who doesn’t take care, regardless of expertise or achievement.

I’ve not marked the offending word/phrase in the following examples, but I think most are spotted easily enough:

  • “Stallone knocks out Julia Roberts at box office” — Reuters. Totally unnecessary, even if I despise Julia Roberts, and even if the scenario is plausible because Stallone is familiar with steroids. Reuters is an odd company — it covers a lot of mundane stuff, often in unsexy-but-important industries, but then it tries to be tabloid-ish and capture cheap Web traffic. 

  •  “School helps migrant children move out of field, into college” — Not actually about homeless migrant children moving to a college campus. Rather, a summer-school program to keep those children from working in fields all summer. As the paper attempts to connect with the community, the headline scuttles the ship goodwill.
  • “Growing strip club chain stirs passionsAh, Freudian slips. It might be OK if the story were merely a nontraditional American success story. But the passions referred to include fatal shootings, not (only) amazing lap dances.
  • “Teen boys hit home run with topless next-door neighbor” — They did not have sex with the next-door neighbor, despite the baseball metaphor taken too far. The syndicated column was among the Denver Post website’s most-viewed items, though, so … success?
  • “Nutritious school meals feed the fight against obesity” — Sigh. Way to convey the opposite of the story in the headline!
  • “Lobster size does not effect flavor or texture…” — Kudos to Luke Morris for capturing this helpful Food Network tip.
  • “Kids lured to read with tickets” — This Detroit News story is positive and sheds light on one of the many efforts to reform what’s considered nationally to be an atrocious school system. But when I see anything involving kids being lured, I’m immediately thinking the worst. The kids are all right, not kidnapped.
  • “Nursery schools cry about teacher shortage” — Actually, I kind of enjoy this headline, especially considering it’s from Vietnam, not the U.S. The knock, of course, is that there seems to be every indication that the shortage is a serious issue, not just a case of grown-ups acting like babies. 

And the counterexample, from The Onion, makes the story into a must-read for the satire-inclined:

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