“Can we say ‘sucks’ in a headline?”
That was the subject line of an email that came from features designer Andrea Higgins. The question surfaced in relation to a headline on an Entertainment section cover this past Sunday.
The “hed” – as we refer to headlines – was attached to a column by PopRox writer Mike Sadowski. He had interviewed drummer Marky Ramone who was unequivocal about his views of the state of music today.
The hed read: “Marky Ramone: Why rock music sucks.”
Now back to Andrea’s question: Can we use “sucks” in a headline? Well, sure we could. We could put anything in a headline. The real question is: Is that a good idea? (To say nothing of questions of accuracy, etc.)
Now, I admit, I am no prude. I have been know, ahem, to drop a vulgarity or two (or 15) in the newsroom.
Also, I am a tabloid guy at heart. I grew up with the New York Daily News and New York Post and admired their brash attitude and headlines. But that’s New York City. This is the Poconos.
Still, I endorsed the headline the way it appeared since I thought it fit the tone of the interview and had a bit of an edge.
Credit Features Editor Helen Yanulus with being smarter than me.
She came to me, proof page in hand, and questioned the use of “sucks.” Her points: It appears on a section front packaged with other stories that might appeal to teens and tweens and what would parents say if they saw their kids reading that page with the word “sucks” in bold-face?
To be sure, kids today probably hear and use language far worse, but does that mean we need to promote it?
Helen added that it’s not to say that we could never use that word, but just on that day with that mix of stories, it was a bad idea. Her call was contextual.
They don’t teach you this stuff in journalism school. It’s born of experience and trying to figure out a community’s compass.
It reminds me of a time about 20 years ago when I worked at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y. I was working on a profile of a very powerful former state senator who had been charged with corruption in her new role as high-ranking executive in a major power company.
Anyway, she was a political veteran and well-known. In the course of my reporting, I called former New York City Mayor Ed Koch who said, and I quote: “Linda Winikow had balls.” Now here was the former mayor of New York City using vulgar language to colorfully describe this woman.
His four words summed her up to a T. My immediate editor on the story, the late Mike Levine, went to bat for me with the managing editor and the quote appeared in print just that way.
Word usage and language evolve over time. And our tolerance (or intolerance) for borderline language changes over time as well. It’s part of what makes this job almost never boring.