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Funny Headlines: Laugh at Your Peril

Ubiquity, Volume 2024 Issue February, February 2024 | BY Philip Yaffe

Full citation in the ACM Digital Library  | PDF


Volume 2024, Number February (2024), Pages 1-5

Communication Corner: Funny Headlines: Laugh at Your Peril
Philip Yaffe
DOI: 10.1145/3649324

Each "Communication Corner" essay is self-contained; however, they build on each other. For best results, before reading this essay and doing the exercise, go to the first essay "How an Ugly Duckling Became a Swan," then read each succeeding essay.

Have you ever been reading a newspaper or magazine and come across a headline that seemed unclear, or puzzling, or that made you laugh out loud because of its apparent stupidity? Almost certainly you have. But how do these bizarre lapses happen—and what can they teach us about our own writing?

My writing background is in print journalism. I have always envied broadcast journalists for two key reasons. First, when they make a mistake in something they say, it's there and then it's gone. Hardly anyone notices. When a print journalist makes a mistake, it fairly leaps off the page. Almost everyone notices. Second, they make considerably more money. Salaries of people who reach audiences of millions are invariable higher, and usually considerably higher, than those of print journalists, whose words may reach only a few thousand.

I am not going to dwell on the second of these, because that's just how things are. But I would like to briefly comment on the first one.

Here is an adage I say over and over again to friends, acquaintances, and anyone else who will listen, because it is crucially important for anyone seeking to understand the news. And that adage is: "The headline is NOT the story."

A headline is more like the title of a book or the title of a chapter in a book. Its fundamental purpose is to succinctly give the reader or listener enough information so they can decide if they want to know more. It is not a summary of the story, and never should be considered as such.

All that having been said, just for fun here is a sampling of some headlines that could have been done better. And for which a broadcast journalist probably never got blamed—but for which a print journalist almost certainly did. On first reading, some of them seem to be simple inanities, while others seem to be bizarre or simply make no sense. Nevertheless, on reading the story, you can find out what they mean.

However, always remember, in print journalism, reading the story is your choice. In broadcast journalism, you have no choice; the speaker will continue talking about the subject whether you want them to or not.


  • Iraqi head seeks arms
  • Something went wrong in jet plane crash, expert says
  • Police begin campaign to run down jaywalkers
  • Enraged cow injures farmer with ax
  • Miners refuse to work after death
  • War dims hope for peace
  • If strike isn't settled quickly, it may last awhile
  • Cold wave linked to temperature
  • Red tape holds up new bridge
  • Man struck by lightning faces battery charge
  • New study on obesity looks for larger test group
  • Typhoon rips through cemetery; hundreds dead
  • Homicide victims rarely talk to police

How are such ridiculous headlines born? It's not because headline writers are stupid or careless. There are actually two very good reasons for the phenomenon: time and technique.

Headlines are written under time pressure, often extreme time pressure. The headline writer does not have the luxury of spending an hour writing headlines for a news broadcast that goes on the air in the next 15 minutes. Likewise, neither does a headline writer have the luxury of spending an hour writing headlines for a newspaper that goes to press in the next 15 minutes.

Journalism students are given a lot of advice about writing headlines, the overall objective being to:

  1. Tell the audience (reader or listener) what the story is about.
  2. Be interesting enough to draw them into reading or listening to the rest of the story.

They are given various techniques for achieving these objectives. However, under extreme time pressure some of these techniques can lead to absurdities such as those shown above. These techniques are:

  • Use a maximum of 5–10 words
  • Use active verbs
  • Use present tense verbs even for events in the past
  • Use the infinitive form of verb for future actions
  • Avoid using articles (e.g., a, an, the)
  • Avoid using conjunctions (e.g., and); use a comma instead
  • Avoid cleverness; headlines are to entice, not amuse

Now that we have a better idea of how they occur, let's finish off with a few more headlines gone astray.

  • Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age of 25
  • Marijuana issue sent to a joint committee
  • China may be using sea to hide its submarines
  • Federal agents raid gun shop, find weapons
  • Man kills himself and runs away
  • World Bank says poor need more money
  • Child's death ruins couple's holiday
  • Hospitals resort to hiring doctors
  • One-armed man applauds the kindness of strangers
  • Bridges help people cross rivers
  • State population to double by 2040; babies to blame
  • Greenland meteorite may be from space
  • Scientists to kill ducks to see why they are dying
  • "For sale" sign can be a big help in finding a buyer for your house
  • Dairy manure will be pumped down sewers to improve water quality
  • Scientists warn male infertility can be passed on
  • Man found dead in graveyard
  • Prostitutes appeal to Pope
  • Queen Mary having bottom scrapped
  • Milk drinkers are turning to powder
  • Juvenile court to try shooting defendant
  • Panda mating fails; veterinarian takes over
  • Kicking baby considered to be healthy
  • Fireworks show to be aired on radio
  • Killer sentenced to die for second time
  • Two sisters reunited after 18 years at checkout counter
  • Quarter of a million Chinese live on water
  • Cows lose their jobs as milk prices drop
  • Two Soviet ships collide, one dies
  • Breathing oxygen linked to staying alive
  • Lack of brains hinders research


Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA's daily student newspaper. He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974. He is the author of more than 30 books, which can be found easily in Amazon Kindle.

2024 Copyright held by the Owner/Author.

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