Monday, July 18, 2005

Hurricane Emily Wuthering* to New Heights

A quick Google news search reveals that I am the first to reference Emily Bronte’s classic novel or the Kate Bush song that it inspired in a headline referring to Hurricane Emily. Perhaps gothic romance isn't easily connected in the mind to extreme weather events, although I do think it would be fair to categorize Catherine and Heathcliff's relationship as stormy.

I predicted here that the nation's headline writers would have a harder time finding a hook for Emily after being handed Hurricane Dennis the Menace. Most of the headlines I've seen so far have played it straight, with no attempts at cleverness. Maybe that's for the best.

One comment to my last post on this subject took the media to task for trivializing the death and destruction that is associated with hurricanes by making the light-hearted Dennis the Menace reference. It’s a point that I hadn't considered.

It seems that clever headlines are most commonly used in human interest type stories, and if the stories in question were focused on people preparing for the storm then they might fall into this category. But in a straight news report that ledes with a death count or other references to human suffering, then a cute headline does seem disrespectful. I don’t recall serial killer Dennis Rader being playfully referred to as a menace.

A headline is meant to encapsulate the article and to entice people to read on. In the case of front page, above-the-fold headlines, they’re also used to lure customers at the newsstand. But a headline should also set the tone for an article. So a pun or a whimsical reference over an article dealing with death and destruction is about as appropriate as a funeral director decked out in a clown costume.

The SJ-R article that carried the Dennis the Menace headline focused on reports of evacuations and power outages, not really the stuff of human suffering. I didn’t feel that the headline distracted from the tone of the article because it wasn’t a report of calamity. But then again, people have different sensibilities and perhaps many more people throughout the country were put off by it (along with many newspapers, Newsweek also evoked television's favorite towheaded scamp in its Hurricane Dennis coverage.)

I’m not opposed to a little wordplay in headlines, although David St. Hubbins’ dictum that there is a fine line between clever and stupid definitely applies. I’ve toed that line myself, falling towards stupid on more than one occasion. Perhaps even on this post.

*def. A local term describing the fierce and wild winds that blow during storms on the moors.

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