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Headlines should be simple and clear, these were not

Dear subeditors, headlines sell the story. So, they should be simple and clear. Or no one will survive them to get to the story. If you lose a reader in the headline, you have lost that reader, period.

These recent headlines failed the test for simplicity and clarity:

  • The Standard, March 17: “Second-generation liquor: Legal lacuna impeding illicit brew war.

What is legal lacuna? Sure, if you’ve been to law school or if you work in Parliament or courtrooms – and not as a janitor – “lacuna” is a word that may have whizzed past your ears to raise your curiosity enough to check it out. But if you’re the average newspaper reader, “lacuna” will make you frown. And you’ll likely shout across the room: “Yo, guys, lacuna ni nini?” Or you’ll just skip the story. So, editors, scrub legalese out of headlines.

  • Daily Nation, March 18: “AG Muturi, ODPP oppose Anti-Corruption Bill.

Well, AG appearing before Justine Muturi will pass. It’s used frequently enough, so your average reader gets it that it stands for Attorney General. But by a show of hands, who many know that ODPP stands for Office of the Director of Prosecutions? Acronyms could mean anything. They’re hardly the poster child for clarity. One in a sentence is bad enough. Two is a bad idea – and that’s in a sentence. In headlines, it’s just a no, no. Rule of thumb: do not pack headlines with acronyms, familiar or not.

  • Daily Nation, March 16: “US advises citizens to hide expensive jewellery, watches in Nairobi estates.”

First, “US” is not a country. The country is, USA. Or the United States. “US” is an adjective. Like, “US President Joe Biden. Second, the United States did what? The US Embassy in Nairobi had on March 15 posted this warning: “Security Alert: Increased crime in residential areas of Nairobi”. So, the embassy advised US citizens to conceal their valuables. Where do you conceal valuables? Well, apparently not locked in a safe. Not even in a bank safety deposit box. The Nation’s heading suggested that the safest place to “hide” jewellery is in Nairobi estates, like Korogocho.

  • The Standard, March 15: “Basic steps to chia farming the high value crop.”

Chia is a high value crop. But did that heading mean how to farm high value crops or how to farm chia? Or was some bloke called Chia farming a high value crop? If it’s vague, revise it for clarity.

  • The Standard, March 15: “Cardinal rules State should stop ignoring to end anger over taxes.”

When your eyes start going over that heading, they probably tell your brain that Cardinal John Njue ruled about something. But by the time you’re midway through you’re wondering if “Cardinal” was an adjective or a noun. You reach the end and meet “anger of taxes”. Now you blame yourself for misreading it. A headline should not make you second guess yourself. A small thing like swapping “cardinal” with “basic” would have save the day. But “stop ignoring to…” also muddies the waters. Clarity just vanished.

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