Travails of the news headline writer

Writing headlines for news items is an art and I am often impressed at how they manage to capture in a very few words the essence of the story. In the case of the death of a famous person, you have even less discretionary space because you have to give the person’s name and often their age, leaving very little room to describe what they were famous for. It gets even worse when they were famous for two things: one good and one bad. How do you balance the two? While the obituaries themselves are written well in advance of death, the headline may not be and you have very little time to come up with one.

So pity the poor person at the BBC assigned to write a headline for the death of Phil Spector. Spector had an immense impact as a pop music producer but also murdered a woman and died in prison.

The first headline was:

“Talented but flawed producer Phil Spector dies aged 81”

It was quickly realized that being a murderer required stronger language than ‘flawed’.

So the headline was quickly replaced with:

“Pop producer jailed for murder dies at 81.”

The BBC has apologized for the first headline as “Not meeting our editorial standards.”


  1. DonDueed says

    They might have gone with “Convicted music producer…” but readers might have thought it referred to punishment for his work on “Let It Be”.

  2. says

    Worse yet, this story focuses on a celebrity and not the fact that people in US prisons are a disaster or genocide, depending on how you describe them. Florida and some other states have no plans to vaccinate prisoners, leaving people to die and the disease to spread -- some/many of whom are innocent. California has started vaccinations, but not where COVID-19 rates are highest.

    2.9% of the US population have COVID-19. 13% of the prison population do. Those in prison are five times more likely to die of COVID-19 than those who aren’t.

  3. Steve Cameron says

    CNN’s first headline was apparently the tone-deaf “Grammy-Winning Record Producer Phil Spector dies of natural causes” so the BBC doesn’t have to feel too bad. The “natural causes” part is a bit curious since I heard it was COVID-related, but the omission of the murder that landed him in prison was perhaps the bigger problem. CNN amended it to fix both : “Grammy-winning producer and convicted murderer Phil Spector dies.”

  4. publicola says

    Wonder what Trump’s obit headline will be? Maybe like Elmer Fudd said: “Good widdance to bad wubbish”.

  5. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “you have to give the person’s name” because otherwise the headline will look like a clickbait. E.g. “Pop producer jailed for murder dies at 81.”

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