By Akash Shukla

Headlines are important tools as newspapers reproduce knowledge, ideologies, public consensus. They sometimes challenge dominant discourses by maintaining their independence and autonomous agency. (Conslavo, 1998, Kelner, 1995, Louw, 2001, MacDonald, 2003, Piacrd & Broody, 2000, Seedat, 1999, p. 340 as cited in MacRitchie and Seedat, 2008).

468slide1What is a headline to a news story? The primary question begins to deal with a reporter’s confusion and journeys all the way to a sub-editor’s scare. The haze of a perfect headline clears with the news editor’s last deliberation. The editor’s word for the chosen headline to run into Print is its last claim for wordplay sans ambiguity.

While a news piece has an introduction, body and conclusion, headline, strangely, is the introduction even before a story is introduced. Headline as a pre-introduction arrests a reader’s floating attention and hauls it with a wordplay lasso before his/her attention may meander to something more interesting; perhaps a cuisine story or soul curry for that matter. Good versus bad headers is a tricky affair. Sample this…


Headline 2: BIRTH OF INDIA’S FREEDOM (source: TOI)

Headline 3: FREE INDIA IS BORN (source: The Hindu)

Headline 4: INDIA WAKES TO LIFE & FREEDOM (source: The Tribune)

In headlines (1), (2), & (3), the variation could easily be determined by the varied news treatment of various newspapers to the same context of India’s Independence. All of these headlines appeared as the banner headlines on the cover page (page 1) of the three newspapers respectively.

The use of words in all capitals reflects on the utmost significance delegated to the news of Independence, which clearly separates it with the other news items of lesser significance on the page. While headline (1) is more direct and penetrating, like a bullet for the reader, headlines (2), (3) and (4) are metaphorical and literary in their approach. In headline (2), the stress is on the word ‘BIRTH’ as it is in the subject position while headline (3) has laid its primary focus on the word ‘FREE INDIA’ by placing it in the subject position. However, headline (4) digresses from (2) and (3) and strays into violation of linguistic rules of syntax and grammar by employing ‘&’ instead of ‘and’.

Though use of symbols are a violation by formal standards of English and its use is strictly to be avoided in the body text, yet the volition is seldom permitted in headlines to tackle space-crunch problems and to avoid the risk of a headline running into the next deck.

Why is a headline strong? They impact the reader with certain linguistic features that make them particularly memorable and effective. This is achieved through the use of puns and alliteration. Wordplay catches the eye more than anything else.

STRONG HEADLINE (5): 9 dead, 30 injured after train derails in Maharashtra

WEAK HEADLINE (6): Train derailment between Nagothane and Roha near Mumbai

STRONG HEADLINE (7): Goods train derails at Ukshi; Konkan route affected

WEAK HEADLINE (8): Death on wheels: Commuter anger rises over Mumbai’s local trains

The aforementioned headlines have been categorically demarcated as strong and weak on the basis of language use, subject-object position, directness of words, aptness, content load and overload and wordiness. All the headers (5), (6), (7) and (8) are written in a context of train derailment in Maharashtra. The writer endeavours to bring out the story theme through directness (headline 5); on other occasions, he chooses to dramatise the idea for a wider audience (headline 8).

Headlines (5) and (7) are to-the-point apt headers. They speak of the accident and about the injured count while headlines (6) and (8) are long and drawy. They employ use of long words like ‘derailment’ and ‘Nagothane’. It is possible to use ‘derail’ instead of ‘derailment’ so use of the latter is tantamount to redundancy.

In an attempt to enhance the impact of the accident in header (8), a story slug ‘death on wheels’ has been used and it speaks of commuters’ anger over local trains and its performance. The headline for a hard news should essentially conform to the norm of directness in approach e.g. Death on wheels: Commuter anger rises over Mumbai’s local trains Commuters’ ire over Mumbai trains .

It is in no way being argued that there is anything wrong with the original headline. However, a trainee reporter can learn much by adhering to the law of compactness in a headline before expanding it.


Let us understand how the headline of a hard news is different from a soft news and how both of them contrastively move away from the domains of columns and features. Observe the tenacity of headlines moving from high to low in the following examples:

9.) Hard news Header: Chennai blasts: Jayalalithaa snubs Centre, refuses its

help (TOI)

10.) Soft news Header: Can new govt stage renewal energy revolution? (TOI)

11.) Feature Header: Country’s women need more power: model Sonalika

Sahay (HT)

12.) Column Header: Don’t shoot the messenger (Third Eye by Barkha Dutt, HT)

13.) Blog Header: Sameer Arshad: Wounds fester in Kashmir, democracy has

not healed them (TOI)

How is a hard-news headline different from its soft-news counterpart? While the former hits on the immediacy of the situation, the latter can experiment deeper with language as the shelf life of a soft news is always more than that of a hard news.

A soft-news headline can be analyzed over a couple of days before it is finally produced for Print or Broadcast media. Since a hard news cannot be held back due to its inevitable immediacy, its headline treatment is always the most impactful and intense among all the other types (Read Hard News example 9). The example 10 on soft news stated above reveals one more language disturbance; it depicts the use of short forms. Structures like ‘govt’ are used to represent full words like government. Many such examples are incessantly used in Indian Print and Electronic media. Some of the most popular ones are ‘NaMo’ for Narendra Modi, ‘Sush’ for Sushmita Sen, ‘IT’ for Information Technology, ‘I-T’ for Income Tax, ‘Cong’ for Congress, ‘Jaya’ for Jayalalithaa, Guj for Gujarat, ‘GenNext’ for Generation Next, and LU stands for Lucknow University.

Representations like Sush for Sushmita Sen are backward formations in accordance with the morphological rules. All abbreviations, acronyms, word blends and backward formations stem out of Morphology (study of words); their basic object is to save space and avoid repetition that leads to redundancies.

The case with features, columns and blogs is no different. With more time at hand, these columns, blogs, and features witness multiple layers of analysis and therefore the headlines can vary in their news peg to a great extent. They verge on the analysis factor and their headers fortify this cause.

Apart from hard-news headlines, the headers have a changeable nature that can make peace with all the important aspects factored in the story or they could turn out to be as purely creative endeavors. Have a look at the creative, inventive and the innovative shades in the following headlines from newspapers and magazines:

14.) City’s petition for tracks gets a running chance (TOI)

15.) Mangoes have a ‘pest’ering problem (HT)


(Bollywood makes it fashionable to slim and bare it)


(Women want them perfect. Men want less flab. Breast surgery is the new rage.)

All the aforementioned headers (14), (15), (16), and (17) reflect word play of different sorts. Header (14) matches ‘track’ with ‘running choice’ as in literal sense trains and engines run on tracks so petition here gets a ‘running chance’ instead of a static one.

Headline (15) speaks of mangoes suffering from problems of aphids (a bug that destroys the groves), therefore, pest has been put in single quotes to isolate it from the term pestering to create an outstanding effect on mangoes. While headers (16) and (17) are cover-page headlines from a well-known Indian magazine, they reflect changing trends by dramatizing the naval and the breasts of the women of contemporary era.

The word ‘booby trap’ here does not mean police dragnet it actually is going by the slang connotation for a woman’s bosom. The editor has linguistically played upon two characteristics of language fundamentally; language is arbitrary and it is polysemous in nature. The magazine discourse is hegemonic in nature as it is setting trends.