Front pages capturing bin Laden’s death show power of a single word

Big stories inspire big headlines, but it was still a shock to see how many newspapers played the single word DEAD on their front page.

When I picked up my paper from the driveway, the only word visible was DEAD. As I drove to work, the word DEAD made the newspaper rack look like a billboard.

Poynter's St. Petersburg Times' headline measured in at a full 5 inches of uppercase san serif type (535 points). The only Times headlines that Poynter librarian David Shedden could find that were larger appeared on extra editions on the attack on Pearl Harbor (WAR) and D-Day (INVASION).

Newsday and the Baltimore Sun also used the DEAD hed; the Virginian-Pilot went for DEAD, but with red letters, now known forevermore as the red DEAD hed.

The super-sizing of these headlines takes the straight news value of the adjective DEAD and creates a celebratory Ding-dong-the-witch- is-dead effect. Who can blame us?

The use of DEAD seems downright restrained alongside tabloid heds that transcend news and editorial, to the level of straight invective. The New York Daily News gave us "Rot in Hell!" The Edmonton Sun preferred "Burn in Hell!" And the Philadelphia Daily News celebrated: "We Got the Bastard!" This was not a day to keep your exclamation points in the closet with your golf clubs, writers.

To put all of this in historical perspective, Stars and Stripes used the headline HITLER DEAD in large type on May 2, 1945.

It turns out that the most shocking headline of today comes from The New York Times. In a day full of flaming words, the Times stands out for its scrupulous adherence to the most plain vanilla news values.

Stripped across the top of the Times is not a one-word hed, but 15 words across two lines:

Bin Laden Killed by U.S. Forces in Pakistan,

Obama Says, Declaring Justice Has Been Done

Rhetorically, it's hard to imagine a more tempered message. The more dramatic words, such as "Killed" and "Justice" are hidden inside the text. The headline begins with the passive voice (Killed) and ends with it (Has Been Done). As if the tone were not flat enough, the headline even manages to elbow in the attribution.

No one would expect a New York Times headline to resemble the New York Post (famous for "Headless Body in Topless Bar"), but on a day when American emotions range from deeply reflective to wildly ecstatic, I would have preferred not an inferno of language, just a little fire.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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