I don’t write the headlines.

It’s a line every print journalist will say at least once during his or her career. It’s usually offered because a source or reader was extremely unhappy with a sensational or incorrect headline. The reporter will take a deep breath and explain that editors write headlines, and reporters rarely see them ahead of time. I’m just as upset as you are, the reporter will say.

Reporters are often hesitant to get into an argument with the copy desk over a headline. There are more important campaigns to wage, such as saving the turn of phrase that makes the creative-writing minor in them smile, but which causes the copy editor to lunge for the delete key.

Readers are often left pondering the identity of the mysterious headline writers. These editors don’t receive bylines and usually aren’t on the masthead. This is a good arrangement for them when headlines go wrong, as they inevitably will. Perhaps the best recent example of this came a few weeks back, when the Daily Express, an English paper, printed what the Guardian deemed the “accidental headline of the year”:


Yes, we’re all wondering if he’s up to the challenge. Apparently, the headline originally read, “Can Dec finally match Ant?” but changes were made to subsequent editions, according to the Guardian:

Apparently, there were too many headlines with “finally” in, so it was changed to “Can Dec at last match Ant?” But along the way, someone forgot to change both sides of the spread, leaving the “a” of “at” on one page and “nally” of “finally” on the other, creating the memorable headline “Can Dec anally match Ant?” in some later editions.

My local paper, The Gazette of Montreal, also fell victim to a thoughtless hed this week when a front-page headline didn’t do the paper’s annual literacy campaign justice:

“RAISE-A-READER Volunteers sells Gazette for literacy”

Alas, the campaign does nothing to help improve the literacy of the paper’s staff. This week also saw the Australian correct a headline that went far beyond the content of the story in question:

THE headline on an article on Page 4 of yesterday’s edition of The Australian, which read “Bank bonuses OK: Hockey”, could have been read as suggesting opposition Treasury spokesman Joe Hockey favoured extravagant bonuses for bank executives.
In fact, as was clear in the article, Mr Hockey questioned the role of the G20 in regulating pay levels, which he said should be dealt with by the shareholders of companies.

The Express and Guardian examples are less likely to raise a writer’s ire, but the Australian’s headline gaffe is exactly the sort of editor-introduced error that reporters can’t stand. Of course, editors have their own, legitimate complaints about us egotistical writers. Our own version of Jets-versus-Sharks takes the stage daily in newsrooms all over the world:

When you’re here to edit,
You edit all the way
From your first cutline
To your last night shift pay.

Sorry. I was momentarily carried away by images of jazz-stepping copy editors bearing down on a gaggle of reporters.

The reality is that editors and reporters are equally at risk of making errors and mistakes. A reporter can complain that the desk should have caught a misspelling, but that’s unacceptable since they’re the ones who made it. Editors can gripe about sloppy reporting and writing, until they meet their “anal” match, as the Daily Express might say. We’d be better off ditching the gang colors and rolling up our sleeves to communicate and collaborate. Errors slip through or are introduced because people aren’t talking to each other.

But back to those headline errors. Last year’s best was, “Homosexual eases into 100 final at Olympic finals.” In this case, the American Family Association’s OneNewsNow site has a standard practice of using the word “homosexual” instead of “gay.” So when sprinter Tyson Gay put in a good performance at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, things took their unnatural course.

Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.