Words and ways to tell a story

Libya’s Battle-Tested
Women Hope Gains Last

Am I the only one annoyed by that headline’s use of words that can be read as different parts of speech? I think I’ve just been staring at it too long. The whole is not really ambiguous; short words are necessary to fit the six-column New York Times home page grid’s narrow one-column headline space. On the even less flexible printed front page, the headline writer fit those seven short words into one line over three columns beneath the top photo.

Some “headlinese” is forgivable. And, in today’s world of constantly updated “front pages” on news websites, the headline will be gone from the Times before you read this. Still, as I stared at the last three words, I decided they and the story beneath the headline would be a good starting point for a class discussion.

First, the words :

  • “Hope” can be a noun or verb, although here “Women” makes its role as a verb clear. It would take “Women’s” to make it a noun, but headline writers sometimes bend the rules.
  • “Gains” also goes both ways. Are “hope gains” increases in hope, or do women hope that some unspecified gains last? Headline writers are free to leave “that” out to save space.
  • “Last” can mean “to persist over time” or “in final position,” a role it plays a lot in sports headlines.  I don’t suppose anyone thinks today’s headline meant something like, “Women’s increases in hope have fallen to last place.”  The summary beneath the headline quickly removed any ambiguity, but didn’t kill my idea of using the headline and story in class.

When you click that headline on the Times home page to go to the story itself, the headline changes to this much clearer single line, thanks to the more flexible story-page layout:

Libya’s War-Tested Women Hope to Keep New Power

The word “power” is much more specific than “gains.” That helps. Beneath it is what the journalism professors call a scene-setter, anecdotal  or round-up lead paragraph. Its strong specific examples are given in similar short declarative sentences: name, occupation, verb…

TRIPOLI, Libya — Aisha Gdour, a school psychologist, smuggled bullets in her brown leather handbag. Fatima Bredan, a hairdresser, tended wounded rebels. Hweida Shibadi, a family lawyer, helped NATO find airstrike targets. And Amal Bashir, an art teacher, used a secret code to collect orders for munitions: Small-caliber rounds were called “pins,” larger rounds were “nails.” A “bottle of milk” meant a Kalashnikov.

The next paragraph of the story ends with a sentence that newswriting textbooks might call a “nut graph,” a transition from the specific examples of the lead anecdote to the more general issue being explored:

“The six-month uprising against Colonel Qaddafi has propelled women in this traditional society into roles they never imagined. And now, though they already face obstacles to preserving their influence, many women never want to go back.”

The page one story summary, also coded into metadata behind the page, is similar to that “nut graph”:

“The Libyan rebels’ unlikely victory over Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi has propelled women in a traditional society into roles they never imagined.”

For my students: Do read the whole story. Beyond the headline and the lead, notice how personal identifications, quotes and attribution are used, how small details like ages and occupations are woven into the story, and how the structure moves you forward to the end.

Also notice the byline — and add Anne Barnard to your list of journalists to watch.

mild-mannered reporter who sank into computers and the Web during graduate school in the 1980s and '90s, then taught journalism, media studies and Web production, retiring to write and play more music.

Posted in Journalism, News, Newspapers, writing

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