I did not write that headline.
But if my editor came up with something clever to write above this story — and I’m clearly tempting fate and Frank Moher (my editor) to write something bratty up there — chances are I’ll be the one who gets in trouble for it.
After taking a lengthy hiatus from daily journalism, I’ve somehow wandered back into news-land, where I’m constantly being reminded that I get in more trouble for the stuff I don’t write — headlines and cutlines (news-speak for the captions under photos) — than the stuff I do.
I recently explained to an otherwise media-savvy friend that a headline in The Vancouver Sun that upset him wasn’t written by the story’s author and didn’t exactly reflect the story — which would be clear if he, you know, bothered to read it. Headlines aren’t about fitting the story so much as fitting whatever space the story is slotted into on the page, which is why contributors can’t even guess at their headlines. That’s the same reason writers have no say over photos — because we don’t decide how much space will be given to our story — and if it was up to us, everything we ever wrote would take up all of page one.
A headline is also the newspaper equivalent of a carny’s sales pitch to get you into the sideshow. The headline writer’s job is to tease you into reading that first paragraph, aka “the lede.” My job is to write a lede that gets you to sample the second paragraph and maybe, just maybe, peruse the entire story (which will still inevitably contain a glitch or two courtesy of overzealous editing, the mysteries of spell-check, the magic of trying to meet a tight deadline, or an error in the info provided by your publicist).
Because photos are selected by people who have no involvement with the story beyond hopefully reading it, the occasional error is inevitable. Like the time a story about me ran alongside a photo of Tahmoh Penikett, identifying me as the superstudly actor from “Battlestar Galactica.” I chalked that up to what Monopoly cards would call “bank error in my favour.”
I also regularly find myself in trouble for the people I don’t mention in a story.
I’ve attracted abuse when I’ve listed several members of a team and not bothered to catalogue all of them — sometimes because the information isn’t there, sometimes because I’ve got a word limit I can’t exceed, but mostly because, once you get past three names in a list, no one but moms and agents are still reading.
But I’ve had publicists, interview subjects, and people I left out of stories demand corrections — and/or attack me via social media — because I rattled off the names of other people in their project while leaving them off. I think I almost cost a publicist her job because I listed several cast members from a TV series and omitted the performer with either the biggest ego or most abusive agent. I received a flood of e-mails pleading with me to add the performer’s name to the existing litany of not-very-famous actors that, from a typical reader’s perspective, was already space filler.
Since she was clearly in fear for her job, and she caught me before the story had gone to print, I was able to make the switch. But hot tip for anyone abusing their poor publicist (or me) for this type of “oversight” — no one is obligated to mention your name in a story. Ever.
And unless you’re paying someone to write your PR material, no one is obligated to write about you. Ever.
My other fun discovery is that the age of instant response encourages people to become instantly outraged. My favourite incident to date . . .
In the middle of the maelstrom that was the Vancouver Film Festival, I made time to write an item about a local film opening at the Rio. I already had my column filed for the week, so I was not getting paid to add another item — it just seemed like a nice thing to do. I’ve made a low-budget indie film, I get that any coverage helps.
So I did a phone interview with one of the two filmmakers and asked him several times to spell his partner’s name for me. I wasn’t sure I’d heard it correctly, repeated it back to him twice, and he assured me we had consensus. Sure enough, we’d somehow enthusiastically agreed on two different spellings.
The great news — moments after the story was posted, the guy I’d interviewed spotted the glitch courtesy of a Google alert and my speedy editor ensured the story was corrected online immediately. Elapsed time the error was on the Sun site — maybe 20 minutes.
But the filmmaker’s partner, whose name started with a different letter than the one in the initial story, was even faster than my editor, because by that time he’d already posted a scathing blog entry attacking me for being so sloppy, intentionally mangling my surname, and suggesting that since my name was so difficult to spell perhaps I should take more care with other people’s monickers.
He didn’t attempt to contact me — he blogged, facebooked, and tweeted about what an asshole I was for covering his film in a daily newspaper in the middle of a festival that had produced a hundred other stories I could have filled the space with. And yep, I felt like an asshole, because I kept flashing on a line I remembered from “MASH”: “No good deed ever goes unpunished.”
Ironically I can’t remember the names of these two filmmakers — which is just as well since there’s next-to-no chance I’ll write anything about them again, unless they win an Oscar. And If they do take home an Academy Award and I’m still covering entertainment, I’ll make sure we accidentally run a photo of someone else, ideally with a headline that has nothing to do with the story.
Mark Leiren-Young blogs at leiren-young.com.