Thursday, June 23, 2005

Freedom's just another bird?

John McIntyre has a piece up at Poynter (thanks, Philippe) about the dangers of allusion -- in headlines and copy. He starts with an example.
On July 4, 1996, when President Bill Clinton visited MarylandÂ?s Eastern Shore, a bald eagle named Freedom, which had been nursed back to health after an injury, was released into the sky to commemorate the occasion.

Unfortunately, Freedom was attacked by a couple of ospreys and ended up back in the bird hospital. When The Baltimore Sun put the story on its front page, the task of writing a headline fell to Paul Clark, one of the ablest copy editors I have ever worked with. He came up with "FreedomÂ?s just another bird/ with nothing left to lose."

That headline was applauded in the newsroom and praised in the in-house newsletter. But when I offer it up as an example of the craft to my copy editing students at Loyola College, I get a roomful of blank looks. Janis Joplin singing "Me and Bobby McGhee" is presumably the kind of music that only older people listen to.
Now, I like the headline. (And, surprisingly enough, I like the song, too. So maybe there's a correlation.) But it's a great example of how allusions can be dangerous because not everyone is drawing from the same cultural framework.

McIntyre offers some pointers on how to use them effectively. My favorite:
Will the passage be understood clearly by a reader who does not catch the reference? Allusion should enrich the readerÂ?s experience by providing an additional layer of meaning. But if it gets in the way of grasping the principal meaning, it is intrusive and counterproductive.
There's more discussion at Testy Copy Editors, including a look at whether the song is "Me and Bobby McGee" or "Me and Bobby McGhee." (Leave it to copy editors to get hung up on that.)

Doug Fisher at Common Sense Journalism says this is just one more reason we need to focus on newsroom diversity.
Products as we are of our upbringing and surroundings, we should realize it is becoming harder for each of us, individually, to make such determinations. By definition, we see things from within our own fishbowls.
And a quick side note: I worked a couple of shifts in the editorial department this week (and that's a nice gig). I was fact-checking some stuff in an article by Virginia Postrel and found another version of it online, in Reason magazine. The headline: "Consumer Vertigo: A new wave of social critics claim that freedomÂ?s just another word for way too much to choose. HereÂ?s why theyÂ?re wrong." I had to fight till the end to not recycle that deck; I really liked it."


At 1:04 AM, June 24, 2005, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

With respect, I have to say that based on what I know about the story, I would not have set Freedom’s just another bird/ with nothing left to lose. It’s too forced. The wordplay and allusion just don't come together in a meaningful way that fits the story. Also, the hed seems too light-hearted and insensitive for the subject matter.


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