Matt Yglesias’ post about headline writing is pretty spot-on.
During my short but brilliant career as a journalist I suffered the indignities of vicious copy editors, who seized on what they thought was the most salacious detail of that night’s zoning meeting and phrased it in such a way that inevitably got me in Dutch with whomever I was covering.
I would take issue with his last point:
Third, there’s a corrupt bargain. As a writer, you want to put together a responsible, defensible article. But you also want lots of people to read your article. An irresponsible, overblown headline can attract readers. But then you look irresponsible! The ideal scenario is for headline-writing to be someone else’s job. That way, they can err on the side of grabbing attention and if people complain you can always disavow it.
This is unnecessarily cynical, I think. There are ways to grab readers’ attention without overblowing the facts of a story. If the story is newsworthy, the headline should write itself. If it’s what most journalism is, which is namely stories about process, then yeah, you might see a little ginning up of the facts in the headline.