by Larry Floersch
As a journalist, I’ve been trained to recognize hyperbole, and by that I mean exaggerated exaggeration, when it raises its huge, ugly head and looms over us like one of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons. Lately I’ve been alarmed by all the hyperbole that is seeping into web news headlines. If it keeps up, the word impact may lose its impact.
Back in February, the Super Bowl had our attention—well, at least the advertising that comes with the Super Bowl had our attention—which is why billions of people watch the Super Bowl in the first place. During the game, which as we all know the Patriots lost because the Eagles scored more points because Tom Brady is getting old, Dodge paid obscene sums of money to run an ad for its Ram trucks that used a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. as a backdrop.
Sure enough, a few days later, after the turmoil of the Patriots’ loss because Tom Brady is getting old had simmered down, a headline appeared in the web news, “Outrage over Super Bowl ad that uses MLK Jr. speech to sell trucks.” I opened the article and read it, but I could not detect any true OUTRAGE on the part of anyone quoted by the writer. There certainly was criticism of Dodge for using the speech in its ad, but no genuine red-faced, nostril-flaring, steam-boiling-forth-from-ears OUTRAGE.
The Winter Olympics in PyeongChang provided hyperbolistic news editors with an even wider stage. One headline read, “American ice dance duo Madison Chock and Evan Bates suffer shocking fall in long program.” I opened the article expecting to find a description and photos of a fall in which Bates dropped Chock on her head and her brain popped out and went skittering across the ice like a hockey puck. Instead, the article said they got their skates tangled, they fell, and they got back up again and finished their program. I’ve watched the winter games long enough to know figure skaters fall, a lot.
What was really SHOCKING in the Olympic figure skating was the wardrobe malfunctions suffered by a couple of female skaters, and it was not so much the malfunctions themselves that raised my eyebrows, although I watched the slow-mo replays over and over again. The assembled media, with their words and video blur tools, went to great lengths to protect the modesty of those skaters, who tried to contain the, uhh, fallout while continuing to do double axels and salchows. That was shockingly uncharacteristic of TV reporters, who more commonly shove a microphone into the face of an athlete who has just suffered a defeat and, after telling them “By the way, we just heard your mom died while watching in the bleachers,” ask the athlete for their reaction to the loss.
Another headline read “Gisler has horrific crash in men’s halfpipe.” I began to read the article but by the end of the first sentence the writer had downgraded the HORRIFIC crash to just “nasty,” dampening my expectations that Gisler had actually ripped off a leg or popped loose an eyeball. And since Gisler got up and walked away, the crash was not as HORRIFIC as those suffered by several of the ski-cross competitors, who had to be carried from their venue on stretchers.
“Twitter reacts to Vonn’s tragic finish in final Olympic race,” was another headline that was off the mark. Based on that headline, I assumed Lindsey had gone off course, crashed into a Twitter account holder and suffered a head injury that left her a vegetable. Instead, I read that Vonn had straddled a gate in the slalom portion of the race and therefore was out of that event. Like figure skaters falling, slalom racers missing a gate is hardly news. Although I am disappointed that Vonn did not win yet another gold medal in her long and storied career of winning medals and world championships, I did not feel this event rose to the level of TRAGIC. I am sure that even with just her bronze medal from PyeongChang, Lindsey will continue to eke out a living with endorsements.
A headline that appeared the morning after the women’s individual figure skating performances read “Twitter aghast over German skater’s choice of music.” Once again I hate to disagree with Twitter, whoever he or she may be, but I could not find an AGHAST in the tweets quoted in the article. One tweeter wrote, “Maybe don’t skate to the theme from Schindler’s List if you’re from Germany. It’s just a little bit #Awkward.” Another tweeted, “As someone who has a master’s in holocaust studies, I’m unsure how I feel about a German skater using Schindler’s List.” Those are pretty tepid AGHASTs.
I suppose I should be sympathetic to the plight of web headline writers. To get their stories noticed, news editors have to compete not only with each other, but also with some master exaggerators in Washington, D.C. Imagine trying to dream up headlines that grab attention when one politician of note, who praised the use of “hyperbole” and “exaggeration” in a book he wrote on business, against all evidence made exaggerations about the size of inauguration crowds. He has also tweeted, “Many are saying I’m the best 140 character writer in the world.” That sets a pretty high bar, some might even say a wall, although I’m sure there are web editors who would opine he has a long way to go to beat the legendary six-word novel often attributed to Hemingway.
On another occasion, this same politician tweeted, “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest—and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.”
When faced with competition like that from a “very stable genius” who openly admits he is “like, really smart,” web news editors can be forgiven for sneaking words such as “shocking,” “outrageous,” or “horrific” into headlines.
Or even an occasional “Sad!”