Whose headline is it anyway? Plus Rapiscan, David Price and X-ray scanners

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"Light my faucet"

"The pun also rises"

Headline writing is an art—a lost art, thanks to Search Engine Optimization and the Internet—but those of us still living in the print world know that crafting a compelling "head" (or "hed," in journo shorthand) can be tougher than polishing 1,000 words of prose.

At the Indy, the section editors and I generally write the headlines, although occasionally a writer will come up with a pithy, punchy one.

"Light my faucet" introduced a story about the environmental dangers of fracking; and how could a story about the pun championships carry a headline other than "The pun also rises"?

We love puns, or I do, anyway—and pop culture references, even the slightly obscure. "We'll melt with you," which was written for a piece about climate change, refers to a song by Modern English. But it gets the point across even if you don't know the song.

The headline on the cover is often different from that on the inside because 1) on the front we have to grab readers' attention more quickly, and 2) there is less contextual information—other photos, boxes, charts to help the reader understand the article—than on the story page.

The web heads are recast for Search Engine Optimization, the enemy of all headline creativity. We have to put certain keywords in the headlines to increase the chances that readers will find the stories in their online searches—or be enticed by the word choice. This is why you see so many sensationalistic headlines online. (Hey Durhamites, wouldn't you click on a story titled, "Bill Bell's baby bump?")

That is also why online "Light my faucet" became "Despite the dangers of fracking, North Carolina lawmakers want to legalize it" and "The pun also rises" transformed into "The first Durham Pun Championship thrills—and disgusts—the crowd."

Sometimes I think of a headline and wish I had a story to go with it. Thus, at a different paper I wrote a food piece with the headline, "The age of asparagus." Because I could.


Last week, ProPublica and the PBS NewsHour published their investigation into the safety of X-ray scanners for airport passengers. The news outlets found that despite scientific concerns over cancer risks posed by the scanners, the Transportation Security Administration has widely implemented this technology—the annual inspections of which are conducted by ... wait for it... the manufacturer, Rapiscan.

Rapiscan has connections to the Triangle and Rep. David Price, a Democrat representing the Fourth District, which (under the old districting maps) includes much of our area.

In 2008, the company opened a 31,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Apex. (It does not produce the passenger screening machines, but rather High Energy X-Ray Cargo and Vehicle Inspection technology.)

In the same year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics data, Rapiscan's political action committee contributed $3,500 to Price's campaign while he was chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee. The company's lobbyist, Susan Carr, chipped in another $4,000.

According to the article, Rapiscan also wooed away former legislative aides to Price and Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, where the company expanded its operations.

Rapiscan's PAC also strategically contributed to Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., then head of the homeland security committee; Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., also on that committee; and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the top Republican on the Senate appropriations committee.

"The TSA has repeatedly defined the scanners as 'safe,' glossing over the accepted scientific view that even low doses of ionizing radiation—the kind beamed directly at the body by the X-ray scanners—increase the risk of cancer," the article reads, despite having a safer alternative: millimeter-wave machines, which are used at Terminal 2 at RDU.

The good news is that the TSA, in response to the article, testified before a Senate committee that it will conduct a new independent study on the safety of the scanners.

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