A headline has just popped up on Guardian Unlimited’s scrolling news ticker. It looks exactly like this:
‘Blair can’t be trusted’ – PA
To me this seems to encapsulate a problem which most news media are only now beginning to tackle – the problem of context. It seems to me that the PA (and by extension Guardian Unlimited, so mea culpa) are relying on an awfully sophisticated reading public to parse that headline as “somebody has said Blair can’t be trusted, according to the Press Association” rather than “the PA thinks Blair can’t be trusted.”
For decades, journalists and the people responsible for selling newspapers have exploited the rather odd convention that putting something in “quotes” is shorthand for saying “we didn’t say this, so don’t blame us if it isn’t true.” Most egregiously, this happens a lot with court reports, and in London at least bleeds into the streets themselves as these headlines appear on posters to promote newspapers (I saw one last week that said “Au pair killed babies, court told”). While the environment was paper and street advertising, that was sort of OK.
But now, as news media get exploded into millions of tiny pieces and feeds into many different formats, it seems to me that we should be being a lot more careful. When I put a headline on a web news story, I’m not putting it on a single web page which I control: I’m putting it on other people’s web pages, in their RSS readers, in their email in-boxes, on their mobile phones, into their electronic programme guides, maybe even into their ears in the form of audio files. How would the phrase “‘Blair can’t be trusted’ – PA” sound on an iPod?
It sounds a simple task, doesn’t it, to turn text content into something which can be used in multiple environments? In fact, it’s incredibly difficult – we’re breaking apart most of the hard-learned conventions of news reporting which the newsreading public understand and are comfortable with. It’s more than writing a shorter headline for a mobile phone screen – it’s about creating new conventions and shorthands while keeping the news itself interesting and vibrant. It’s going to be an awfully interesting few years for sub-editors, I reckon.