Shocking Secrets Revealed: The Language of Tabloid Headlines
Otto Friedrich has observed that "the average newspaper is simply a business enterprise that sells news and uses that lure to sell advertising space"(194). Whether one would accept this assessment for true hard-news publications, it does seem to be especially appropriate for tabloids, a term used here specifically for newspapers focused on gossip which, as Levin et al. state (article abstract), could concern "mundane events" in the lives of the famous or bizarre events in the lives of the otherwise ordinary. In fact, such newspapers' very job (at least for the Weekly World News, according to its Managing Editor Sal Ivone) is to "sensationalize the stories" they print (Meuse, 43). Since tabloids cannot rely on the hard-news value of their stories (or the reputations of their reporters) to sell copies, they must make use of other attention-getting devices to lure readers. One of these devices is the strategic placement of tabloids at the checkout counters of supermarkets, along with magazines and self-help booklets, so that bored customers might be led to look at them while they wait to pay for their groceries. A second device involves the layout of the front page, with its provocative photos and large, vari-colored, eye-catching headlines, often in block capitals reminiscent of comic-book captions. It is the nature of these headlines that is the focus here - specifically, the various linguistic devices that tend to recur in a fair percentage of headlines from issue to issue and that seem, whether by design or not, to function as lures to the reader's attention.
As a data base for an analysis of these devices, headlines were collected from nine weeks' worth of issues of the four most popular tabloids in America (according to Levin et al., article abstract): the National Enquirer, the Star, the National Examiner, and the Globe. The National Examiner is a supermarket tabloid owned by the American Media Corporation. All headlines on the cover of each issue from July 26, Aug. 2, Aug. 9, Aug. 16, Aug. 23, Aug. 30, Sept. 6, Oct. 4, and Oct. 11, 1988, were recorded, an average per week of 4.9 for the National Enquirer, 7.9 for the Star, 5.6 for the National Examiner, and 6.1 for the Globe - a total of 212 (see Appendix A). (1) Like other tabloids, its contents have often come under question, and it has been derided for its sensationalistic writing. . These headlines were then examined to discover what content-related, rhetorical, and linguistic features could be seen to recur over the nine weeks.
It should be immediately apparent that the foremost device identifiable in tabloid headlines is the use of content-rich vocabulary - words that get the attention of the reader either through reference to a particularly interesting topic (e.g., "romance," "divorce," "sex," "scandal," etc.) or through evoking powerful, often emotional connotations (e.g., "weird," "sizzling , "stripped," etc.) - a device also common in advertising language (see Cook 101+). As early as 1959, Otto Friedrich identified "the art of exaggerating without actually lying" (194) as a key attention-getting device used in tabloid writing (thus, every woman is either "beautiful," "attractive," or "vivacious," depending on whether she is actually pretty, plain, or ugly, respectively ), and this sort of "creative" use of words can certainly be seen in current tabloids. In fact, a review of headlines from each tabloid determined that 81.8% of the National Enquirer's, 81.0% of the Star's, 78.0% of the National Examiner's, and 67.3% of the Globe's used at least one (subjectively identified) content- or connotation-loaded word. Compare, for example, a loaded headline like "My Stormy Marriage: By Willard Scott (Star, 8/9/88) with the bland "Jeane Dixon Answers Your Questions," from the same issue of the Star.
Looking at the topics in more detail, one discovers the expected mix of sex, scandal, and tragedy, paranormal, or supernatural phenomena, outrageous behavior, how-to tips on self-improvement (especially dieting) and household tasks, and information about celebrities, outrageous or not (this last category being the most common focus of tabloid articles). Consider the following samples (where the lack of capital letters duplicates the original format): sex: "Surgeon, 70, Makes 11 Nurses Pregnant" (Nat. Ex., 7/26/88), and "The Day Priscilla Presley woke up Nude in Bed with Richard Gere (Star, 8/30/88); scandal: "Marie Osmond puts her 5-yr-old son to work - and church is outraged" (Globe, 8/23/88), and "Jim & Tammy Swindled - hoaxed & fleeced by bogus preacher" (Nat. Ex., 10/11/88); tragedy: "Paralyzed Lucy's Last Wish" (Globe, 7/26/88), and "Fred MacMurray Battles for Life: Wife Prays He'll Reach His 80th Birthday" (Globe, 8/16/88); paranormal/supernatural phenomena: "Lonely UFO Aliens Are Stealing Our Pets" (Nat. Ex., 9/6/88), and "Linda Evans Says 35,000-Year-Old Spirit Tells Her to Move Out on Fiance - So She Does!" (Nat. Enq., 8/9/88); outrageous behavior: "How Tatum O'Neal Stripped to Seduce Michael Jackson" (Star, 8/2/88), and "Michael J. Fox Outrages Hotel Guests During His Bizarre Island Honeymoon" (Nat. Enq., 8/9/88); tips: "How Grits and Spaghetti Can Beat the Blues" (Nat. Ex., 10/4/88), and "Don Johnson's diet: Lose 25 lbs in 25 days[:] It's great for women, too!" (Star, 10/11/88); and celebrities: "Cybill Eats Nannies Alive: Twins' mom goes through 13 in a year" (Star, 10/4/88), and "Marilyn Monroe spent the night with dead lover" (Globe, 8/9/88). As these headlines illustrate, the topics mentioned earlier are by no means mutually exclusive - many celebrity features concern outrageous behavior involving sex, and so on.
Besides these subjects, one might have also expected a fair sample of articles on physical deformities or freakish physical accomplishments, these being the topics perhaps most strongly associated with tabloids (at least, by critics and satirists), but rather surprisingly, only one relevant headline appeared in this sample: "Tragic story of newborn monster only a mother could love" (Nat. Ex., 9/6/88). Such sensational topics actually appear much more frequently on the covers of other tabloids not included in this sample, and a reasonable hypothesis might be that these four most widely bought tabloids aspire to be taken as more serious or newsworthy, and so avoid the less credible stories (unlike other tabloids such as Weekly. World News - which, according to Meuse, "will accept stories at their face value" ). For the sake of illustration, however, two sample headlines which deal with deformity and freakish behavior can be offered here from the Sun: "Shocked Granny, 67, Gives Birth to Chimp-Faced Twins" (10/25/88); and "Wife hooked on soap eats 12 bars every day" (9/6/88).(2)
A similar inspection of connotation-rich vocabulary (aside from those nouns which name sensational topics, already illustrated earlier) reveals nouns, verbs, and especially adjectives chosen for their impact on the readers. In "Why heart-broken Susan Lucci is an innocent victim" (Nat. Ex., 8/9/88), for example, the reader cannot even ascertain the actual event to be discussed, but "heartbroken," "innocent" and "victim" (and, of course, the celebrity name itself) all arouse curiosity and interest. In fact, several key terms recurred a number of times in the 212 headlines examined: the big winners were "baby" and the related "pregnant," in 16 and 11 headlines, respectively; but "secret" occurred 13 times; "diet" 7; "romance/romantic" 6; and "wacky," "hunk," "shocking " and "heartbreak/heartbroken/heartache" each appeared 4 times.
Another type of connotative vocabulary, what Madelon Heatherington has called labels of primary potency (177), were also expected to be quite common in tabloid headlines, but in fact, only two clear-cut examples were found. These words are adjectives which categorize and even stereotype people in certain ways (usually according to racial, ethnic or religious group; gender; etc.) and so tend to overshadow the nouns they modify (e.g., what is significant to the users of the phrase "black female lawyer" is ot so much the profession of the individual as her race and gender). The two examples appeared in the headlines "Male Nurse Makes 5 Old Ladies Pregnant" (Nat. Ex., 10/11/88) and "Mystery of Diana Ross' Blond Baby" (Star, 8/2/88); in both stories, the labels of primary potency clearly do convey information central to the stories' import, but in most other tabloid articles other connotative adjectives (e.g., "heartbroken," "brave," "wacky," etc.) and the celebrity names by themselves serve the function of engaging the reader's interest.
Three other language devices that do occur frequently can be interpreted as having the purpose of bringing the reader dose to the individuals featured in the stories, making him or her feel intimately connected to them. The most obvious attempt to establish this sort of intimacy (see Brown and Ford 247, among many others) is through the use of first name only to identify celebrities, without any mention of the person's last name; such first-name use occurred in 39 out of 212 headlines (18.4%). The implication is that readers know these people personally, since they can use first names with them, and since they don't need last names to identify who is meant. Thus one has "Elvis' daughter flips for man twice her age" (Globe, 9/6/88); "Liz Pulls Strings In U.S. Senate to Keep Son Convicted of Drugs From Being Kicked Out of U.S." (Nat. Enq., 10/11/88); "Test-Tube Baby for Burt & Loni: Friends Say It's in the Works" (Globe, 8/2/88); and others.
But even beyond just using first names, some headlines actually use well-known nicknames for celebrities (in 20 headlines, or 9.4%), further reinforcing the sense of familiarity and intimacy that readers feel toward those so labeled. Consider "Fergie's Crash Diet: Lose 50 lbs. in 6 Weeks" (Star, 9/6/88); "Di's Last-Ditch Bid to Save Her Marriage: She & Charles Plan Move to Hong Kong!" (Star, 10/4/88); and "Conan Demands Give Me a Baby or Get Out" (Globe, 7/26/88). Of course, sometimes photos accompanying the headlines might be counted on to identify the focus of these articles, but the use of first names and nicknames can still be seen as a potent device for engaging readers - making them feel "inside" the story.
The other device apparently used to promote readers' feelings of closeness to individuals featured in tabloid articles is what will be called here pseudo-quotes. These statements are treated in some ways as if they were direct quotes: i.e., they often use first-person pronouns or command forms and are phrased so as to convey the attitudes supposedly held by the person being quoted, although the writer of the article is not at all likely to be privy to them - a clear application of "the omniscient narrator in newswriting" (Gibson 204), claiming access to the minds of story subjects in a manner which Gibson points out is fine in fiction but is much frowned upon in journalism (204). But one other characteristic suggests that they are not verbatim reports of actual utterances - specifically, a lack of quotation marks in many of the headlines. The use of these pseudo-quotes thus gives readers a feeling of involvement or intimacy with the article subjects (plus a spurious sense that the information is authentic). Examples include "Tubby Hubby Divorces Wife Who Lost 900 Lbs: She Weeps: 'He Liked Me Fat - when no other man wanted me'" (Nat. Ex., 8/2/88); "Conan Demands Give Me a Baby or Get Out" (Globe, 7/26/88); "Cher: Why I Like 'Em Young" (Star, 9/6/88).
A final category of linguistic devices found in tabloid headlines involves various literary or poetic devices, affecting the phonological shape of phrases rather than their content - part of what Cook (226) calls code play in advertising, manipulations of "sounds and rhythms, meaning and grammatical patterns of language," among other things, to direct "attention upon the substance and means of communication, rather than using these only to refer to the world." The effect is to make potentially unmemorable headlines or phrases more interesting purely in their pronunciation. The most common of these devices, whether used intentionally or occurring fortuitously, is alliteration; this kind of consonant pattern occurs in 72 headlines, or 34%, as in "First Photos of: Fergie's Baby" (Nat. Ex., 7/26/88); "Brave Lucy Bounces Back from Stroke . . ." (Nat. Enq., 7/26/88); "Eddie Murphy: Secret Surgery" (Nat. Enq., 7/26/88); "Liz Drowning Drama" (Globe, 10/11/88).
A less common device is rhyme - it occurs in only 6 headlines, or 2.8%, but is certainly noticeable when it is used; consider "Willie Nelson's Gal Pal Pregnant . . ." (Nat. Enq., 8/2/88); "Tubby Hubby-Divorces Wife . . ." (Nat. Ex., 8/2/88); "Cher's new toy boy . . ." (Globe, 10/4/88).
Finally, a number of instances of assonance can be found - in 38 headlines, or 17.9% (not counting assonance in proper names, such as Mike Tyson. However, these seem to be almost entirely accidental, simply occurring as fallout from word choice rather than as its deciding factor. Thus, in the examples "The Real Reason Wives Nag" (Nat. Enq., 8/9/88), "Bingo-Mad Grandmother Runs off with Boy, 14: 'That's my lucky number' says gambling granny" (Nat. Ex., 8/9/88), and "Beatles & Ex-lovers Defend Lennon Against Sex & Drug Charges" (Star, 8/30/88), only the last one seems to be so extensive that it might have been planned.
It is clear from this headline sample that only the content-related characteristics, of the ones just discussed, occur with an overwhelming degree of frequency. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that a number of the other devices analyzed here are used too frequently to be totally accidental (first names, pseudo-quotes, and alliteration, especially).
Certainly, when all these various characteristics are taken together, they give the strong impression of prose that is as carefully constructed as is advertising copy designed to sell a product (this impression can be reinforced by considering advertising-language characteristics themselves, as discussed in Cook's work and others). And, of course, that is precisely what Otto Friedrich claimed as the function of newspaper headlines, tabloids especially (194). In that respect, then, this analysis provides yet further evidence that Friedrich's 1959 dictum still holds true.
Whether such a conclusion causes distress today must depend on whether readers look upon the tabloids as real newspapers, whose function truly is to report facts, or as gossipy entertainments whose content is not relied upon to be true. As Gibson says, "One appreciates any effort by journalists to make the reading of the news less of a chore and a bore. Nobody wants to be dull. But if the alternative to dullness is dishonesty, it may be better to be dull" (208). Dullness is one flaw no tabloid headline can be accused of, but neither would most readers accuse tabloids of being unequivocally honest, a view, as we have already seen, that at least some of the tabloids themselves reinforce. So in the end, if readers choose to believe that extraterrestrials are kidnapping their pets or that Diana Ross had a blond baby, they cannot fairly say they weren't warned about the nature of the information they are reading; the headlines themselves give ample warning of the uncertain veracity of the content to follow.
Source: "Shocking Secrets Revealed! The Language of Tabloid Headlines" was originally published in the Spring 1995 issue (52.1) of ETC.: A Review of General Semantics (pp. 27-46). It is reprinted here with the permission of the Institute of General Semantics (IGS).
To double-check the currency of the headline strategies identified in this corpus, headlines from the same four tabloids were collected during the week of 6/15/93. These headlines, twenty in all, showed a distribution of characteristics similar to those from 1988, except for more instances of labels of primary potency (six) and a lack of instances of assonance (and two examples of the latter were informally observed the week after). I am therefore assuming that my analysis of these earlier examples still holds for today's tabloid headlines.
One such headline was also found in my June, 1993, sampling: "Amazing courage of the toddler with no limbs" (Nat. Ex., 6/15/93).
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First Photos of Fergie's Baby
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Fergie's fear as baby is born - Whitney Houston is after my Husband
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Beatles & Ex-lovers Defend Lennon Against Sex & Drug Charges
Week of 9/6/88:
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Elvis' daughter flips for man twice her age
Cybill sees Red [in red ink red ink Health administration A popular term for financial losses. Cf in the Black. ] - 'Moonlighting' Making Deal to Costar Farrah
Newhart's TV Wife, 45, in Love with Hunk, 25
Kirk Douglas Tells All: My Romances with Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford and Lauren Bacall - Hot Best-Seller
Kenny Rogers Devastated dev·as·tate, tr.v. dev·as·tat·ed, dev·as·tat·ing, dev·as·tates, 1. To lay waste; destroy. 2. To overwhelm; confound; stun: was devastated by the rude remark. - Pal Arrested for Murder
12 Reasons You Shouldn't Diet
Girl, 7, Gives Birth to 20-Ounce Twins: Miracle babies are 'doing just fine'
Humiliation of vidous sex scandal shatters Priscilla & Lisa Marie: The inside story
Lonely UFO Aliens Are Stealing Our Pets
Feel 20 yrs younger instantly: 10 Hi-Energy Foods to Add Zip & Zest to Your Life
Love secrets of Robert Redford's new sweetie
Tragic story of newborn monster only a mother could love
Gary Coleman Blasts Parents for Making him a Star
Fergie's Crash Diet: Lose 50 lbs. in 6 Weeks[;] Plus Baby photos by Prince Andrew
The Secret Men in Dolly Parton's Life: She holidays with handsome hunks hunks, pl.n. (used with a sing. verb). A disagreeable and often miserly person. [Origin unknown.] in Hawaiian Paradise - but hubby Carl doesn't seem to mind
Soap Wedding of the Year: 'Restless' beauty weds 'General Hospital' playboy in $50 gown
Cher: Why I Like 'Em Young
Broken Romance with A.A. Counselor Drove Joan Kennedy Back to Drink
Lisa Marie Presley parties on anniversary of dad Elvis' death Fall Horoscope Special
Fall TV Heats Up : * Sneak preview of first Cosby episode, * Hagman wooing Victoria Principal back to Dallas ,* Exclusive photos of Dirty Dancing series
Week of 10/4/88:
Dynasty Back Without Krystle
Ann-Margaret's Deathbed Vigil
Cher's new toy boy? [:] TV host catches her eye as bagel maker gets the boot
Royal wedding fever grips Monaco as - Elvis' Little Girl Falls for Grace's Little Prince
Miracle foods that prevent breast cancer
Hedy Lamarr Loses $300,000 in Jewels - and doesn't know where they've gone
Alan Thicke: My 8 Years of Terror[:]Love-Crazed Woman Stalks 'Growing Pains' Star
It's Love! Jessica Hahn & 300/Lb. Ex-Preacher
Cybill Wins 'Moonlighting' Showdown! ... Her Boss Quits After Bitter Feud
Book Bonus[:] Joyce Brothers Tells Women: How to Get What You Really Want
Your Best Food Buys for October
Experts Convinced Incredible New Photographs Prove Conclusively That ... Elvis is Alive[:] World Exclusive ... more amazing pics inside [photo caption: This scene in Las Vegas a few weeks ago speaks for itself]
Awful New Disclosures: Secret hell of the champ's wife
How Grits and Spaghetti Can Beat the Blues
Starting This Week: 8-Week Cholesterol Cure - #1 Best-Seller for a Year
Cybill Eats Nannies Alive: Twins' mom goes through 13 in a year
Di's Last-Ditch Bid to Save her Marriage: She & Charles Plan Move to Hong Kong!
Jeane Dixon Fall Predictions
* Dolly Parton plans divorce
* Cher weds young hunk (not Rob)
* Burt's Loni gets pregnant
* First baby for Vanna
Justine Bateman's Wacky Love Life
How Kennedy kids are bringing Ted & Joan together again
Star's Mystery Illness Rocks Top Soap
Love turned feuding Olympic in-laws into champions [photo caption: Fast Flo/Jumpin' Jackie]
Valerie Harper Nurses Dying More as She Beats TV Bosses
Week of 10/11/88:
Liz Drowning Drama
Vanna to wed ex-car thief
'Michael Jackson Jailed': Cops deny report of singer's arrest & 7-year cover-up
New AIDS Terror Hits Stars: TV sex symbols take tests & precautions as doctor says more stars doomed to die
Lose 10 Lbs in 3 Days - with a diet that has worked for thousands
Superman runs off with his kids' baby sitter
Husbands Should Pay Wives for Housework - Court Rules
Reagan Sees UFO and Orders His Pilot: Follow It! [:] Secret Mid-Air Encounter Finally Revealed
Bronson's Wife: 'I'm Beating Cancer' - Jill Ireland's Own Inspiring Story[:] Exclusive Interview
Liz Pulls Strings In U.S. Senate to Keep Son Convicted of Drugs From Being Kicked Out of U.S.
'Moonlighting' Lovebirds lovebirds, small parrots, traditional symbol of affection. [Am. Culture: Misc.] See : Lovers, Famous in Real-Life Romance
Male Nurse Makes 5 Old Ladies Pregnant: Seniors fell hopelessly in love with silver-tongued Romeo[:] The inside story
Jim & Tammy Swindled - hoaxed & fleeced by bogus preacher
Flush out body poisons[:] Wonder Salad Dissolves Cholesterol Instantly
Jackee's knockout romance with boxing champ
Brides Fined for not Being Virgins
World's smallest man's desperate plea: 'I need a wife'
Agony & ecstasy of life with Liz - in his own words: Burton's Love Diaries Unearthed Unearthed is the name of a Triple J project to find and "dig up" (hence the name) hidden talent in regional Australia.
Unearthed has had three incarnations - they first visited each region of Australia where Triple J had a transmitter - 41 regions in all. After 25 Years: 'Elizabeth is an eternal one-night stand ... I love that woman so much I cannot believe my luck ... I want to make love to her & cherish her every minute of the day'
Gen. Hospital's 'Monica', 39, To Marry Her High School Sweetheart
Don Johnson's diet: Lose 25 lbs in 25 days[:] It's great for women, too!
How JFK Jr Beat Cocaine
Jackee quits 227
Fans Rally Round 'Broke' Tammy Wynette
Dirty Dancer Jennifer Grey To Wed Johnny Dep: Jump Street star pops question on bended bend·ed v. Archaic, A past participle of bend1. Idiom: on bended knee. On one's knee or knees, as in supplication or submission.. Adj. 1. knee.
Cybill Shepherd's Wacky Marriage[:] Plus Exclusive color photos of her twins at age one
Week of 6/15/93:
Cheers Star Slapped With Sex Charges![:] Mailman Cliff dragged me into a bathroom and forced himself on me, sobs TV beauty [Photo caption: Her own Shocking Story]
From dirt-poor childhood to $20M mansion[:] Whitney's Very Private Photos[:] World Exclusive - Never Seen Before - Fabulous 3-Page Special
AIDS-stricken Malcom Forbes tricked Liz into marrying him![:] Billionaire Took His Secret to the Grave
Race War Rocks Oprah's Diner![:] Black cooks charge they are bullied by whites & she won't help 'em
Seinfeld, 39, falls for high school gal, 17 . [Photo caption: Budding Star at Sweet 16]
Whitney Jets to Hawaii With Sick Baby to Save Marriage ... and it works
Angela Lansbury's Gay Husband Revealed: Tragic secret of 'Murder, She Wrote' star's 1st marriage
Seinfeld, 39, in romance with high school girl, 17
Madonna's wild fling with hoop star Charles Barkley
After Angel Saves Him From Fiery Mid-Air Crash ... Billy Graham Close to Death?
We're giving away $12,000 worth free![:] Stay Young Forever with Miracle Chinese Herb Ginkgo ginkgo (gĭng`kō) or maidenhair tree, tall, slender, picturesque deciduous tree (Ginkgo biloba) with fan-shaped leaves. [;] Docs hail Oriental fountain of youth
Revealed! Cruel Plot Made Lucci Lose Emmy for 14 Years
Amazing courage of the toddler with no limbs
They're living in U.S. lake[:] Jurassic Park Dinosaurs Are for Real
$200,000 Reward![:] Help Us Find This Missing Boy
Win $3,000 Fun-In-Sun Vacation For Two
Your Zodiac Diet Guide: Foods to eat and avoid
'Dallas' beauty Audrey Landers: My miracle twins
Cradle-Snatcher: Seinfeld, 39, flips for high school girl, 17
Princess Di Becoming a Catholic