Journalism

Coronavirus Headline Causes Confusion About Vice President

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The news service Reuters caught some flak on Friday over a coronavirus headline that made it look like Mike Pence was a patient.

A coronavirus headline on Friday served as a reminder that common shorthand isn’t always the way to go.

The story featured an update on patients hospitalized with the coronavirus. Reuters ran a story with this headline:

Just one American with coronavirus still in hospital: Vice President Pence

The story went up shortly before 4 p.m.

Reuters posted a tweet as well with the same headline.

But by 10:30 p.m., they deleted it. The tweet, in fairness, received a great deal of criticism.

Understandably so.

In fairness, by 11 p.m., the headline itself had been changed to something that reads much better:

Vice President Pence says just one American with coronavirus still in hospital

Headline writing isn’t always as easy as it looks.

Headline writers often use the colon as shorthand for “says.” Most commonly, they’ll place the “speaker” first, followed by the colon, followed by what’s being said.

Here’s a very common example:

Police: Man robbed bank for grocery money

It’s shorthand but for most people, it’s a clear statement that police say a man robbed a bank for grocery money.

Most of us who’ve worked in news for any length of time have crafted a headline in this manner. We’re often working to stack a headline with enough pertinent information to get you to actually read the story without making it so long that it interferes with the layout of the website or the page.

It’s a juggling act.

Some people seem to prefer putting the attribution at the end instead of the beginning, as in:

Man robbed bank for grocery money: police

I’d never do it that way. It doesn’t read as clearly to me, and I can’t imagine it reads as clearly for the average person.

If I were going to put the attribution at the end, I’d drop the colon and add the word say:

Man robbed bank for grocery money, police say

It reads much more clearly to me and it’s only a difference of four characters, the three-letter word and one extra space.

Whoever wrote Reuters’ headline placed the attribution at the end, which is the first problem.

But they happened to craft a headline that reads as if what comes after the colon is supposed to identify the “one American” who’s still in the hospital. Therefore, many read it as Mike Pence being that person.

We didn’t even know he had a sniffle!

News consumers, in case you haven’t heard, can be somewhat less than kind on social media. They seem to feel entitled, in fact, to be as meanspirited as they can be. (Most would probably never be so rude face-to-face, but when they’re tucked safely behind the keyboard, the claws come out.)

Hindsight is always 20/20. But if I’d written that headline, I’d have used the word says at the end:

Just one American with coronavirus still in hospital, vice president says

In that example, I’d actually save a character. If we believe Pence is well-known enough, I might have ended it with “Pence says.”

In either case, it would have avoided a lot of confusion…and a lot of criticism.

1 Comment

  1. No claws, I promise. But the only thing I really know about Mike Pence is that he’s invisible. I know his beliefs are, let’s say, draconian, but other than this, this person is invisible, unheard, a cipher. He’s a vice president with no words.

    If the maniacal overlord we have the nerve to call president got coronavirus, howevrr, I’d be delighted. (Okay, there are my fangs showing, but not my claws… and you know I have claws.)

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.