Errors & Omissions: Blindingly obvious questions are not the best way to attract the reader

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The Independent Online

First you read the headline. Then you read the picture caption, if any. Finally you turn to the text of the story. So it is quite important that the headline and caption, and any other bits and pieces of "furniture" in large type, should draw you in to read the story.

A terrific lesson in how not to do it was provided by the Saturday Column page last week. The main headline asked: "What do Gordon Brown and Juliette Binoche have in common?" Below, side by side, were a beauty-and-the-beast matching pair of photographs showing Mme Binoche and Mr Brown. Caption: "French actress Juliette Binoche and former prime minister Gordon Brown have both been the target of criticism by former colleagues and compatriots this week." Right, that's it then. The question posed by the headline has been answered. No need to read the story.



Mystery man: Another headline in the form of a question with a blindingly obvious answer appeared on the front cover of Tuesday's Viewspaper: "Who was Ralph Miliband?" This was accompanied by a grainy photograph that looked as if it had been taken in the 1950s.

So, who was Ralph Miliband? Unusual surname. Where have I been hearing it recently? The piece inside put an end to the feverish speculation by confirming that Ralph Miliband was indeed the father of the brothers David and Ed Miliband, who are contending for the Labour Party leadership.



Gang of eight: A political story last Saturday showed how you can make figures prove anything. It started like this: "Nick Clegg is facing a growing grassroots revolt as Liberal Democrat councillors quit the party in protest at the decision to form the coalition with the Conservatives. Eight councillors in four areas have already resigned and the party's high command is braced for more resignations as the full impact of the public spending cuts becomes clearer."

Amid all this imagery of size and speed, it is easy to lose sight of the figures. So, eight gone – but out of how many? The answer was buried halfway down the story: there are 3,900 Lib Dem councillors nationally. So, fractionally more than two in 1,000 Lib Dem councillors have quit. Given the discontent on the left wing of the party, some might say that was evidence of party unity holding up pretty well, so far.



Fall of faith: We all suffer occasional mental malfunctions. We oldies take refuge in calling them "senior moments". Young Johann Hari had no such feeble excuse when he wrote, in a piece about the Pope, published on Thursday: "For over 25 years, Ratzinger was personally in charge of the Sacred Congregation for the Defender of the Faith."

That's the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. "Defender of the Faith" is a title bestowed by Pope Leo X on Henry VIII for writing a book attacking the ideas of Martin Luther. That, of course, was before Henry sacked the Pope and took control of the English church himself. The title Defender of the Faith – Fidei defensor in Latin – is borne to this day by the Queen, which is why it says "F D" on every coin in your pocket. Further, the Congregation has not been officially "Sacred" since 1988.



Mixed metaphor of the week: "Greens stoke backlash against Merkel's nuclear power extension." That headline appeared over a news story on Monday. It is difficult to form a picture in the mind of somebody stoking a backlash. And, worse, any attempt to do so is likely to start with shovels full of coal – not a suitable image to bring to a story about nuclear power.

You could mount an ingenious defence of this metaphor on the grounds that one of the dictionary definitions of "backlash" is a jarring or backward motion of ill-fitting mechanical components. If a backlash occurred in the mechanism of a steam engine, it could be said to have been stoked – sort of. But I bet neither the writer nor the readers of that headline had any such idea in mind.

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