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Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 695–721 www.elsevier.com/locate/pragma

On newspaper headlines as relevance optimizers
Daniel Dor*
Department of Communications, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel

Abstract This paper suggests an explanatory functional characterization of newspaper headlines. Couched within Sperber and Wilson’s (1986) relevance theory, the paper makes the claim that headlines are designed to optimize the relevance of their stories for their readers: Headlines provide the readers with the optimal ratio between contextual effect and processing effort, and direct readers to construct the optimal context for interpretation. The paper presents the results of an empirical study conducted in the news-desk of one daily newspaper. It shows that the set of intuitive professional imperatives, shared by news-editors and copy-editors, which dictates the choice of headlines for specific stories, can naturally be reduced to the notion of relevance optimization. The analysis explains why the construction of a successful headline requires an understanding of the readers—their state-of-knowledge, their beliefs and expectations and their cognitive styles—no less than it requires an understanding of the story. It also explains the fact that skilled newspaper readers spend most of their reading time scanning the headlines—rather than reading the stories. # 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved. Keywords: Headlines; Relevance theory; Pragmatics; News value; News framing; Media, communication

1. Introduction This paper is an attempt to suggest an explicit and generalized answer to a very fundamental question in the study of the mass media, i.e., the question of the communicative function of newspaper headlines. The importance of the role of headlines in the communicative act performed by newspapers can hardly be exaggerated, yet the nature of this role has virtually never been explicated in the literature. As we shall see below, the regular strategy adopted in the literature has been to make finegrained descriptive distinctions between different types of headlines—news headlines in ‘quality newspapers’; news headlines in ‘tabloid newspapers’; ‘summarizing * Tel.: +972-3–6406521; fax: +972-3-6406032. E-mail address: danield@post.tau.ac.il (D. Dor). 0378-2166/02/$ - see front matter # 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved. PII: S0378-2166(02)00134-0

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D. Dor / Journal of Pragmatics 35 (2003) 695–721

headlines’; ‘localizing headlines’, ‘quotation headlines’, etc.—and assign them different types of communicative functions. In this paper, I will suggest an explanatory functional definition of newspaper headlines which attempts to transcend the above distinctions in type and explain the very fact that newspapers—all types of newspapers—have headlines in them. The functional definition to be developed in this paper relies very heavily on Sperber and Wilson’s (1986) technical notion of relevance. Newspaper headlines will be functionally defined as relevance optimizers: Newspaper headlines are relevance optimizers: They are designed to optimize the relevance of their stories for their readers. This functional definition positions the headline in its appropriate role as a textual negotiator between the story and its readers. It explains why the construction of a successful headline requires an understanding of the readers—their state-of-knowledge, their beliefs and expectations and their cognitive styles—no less than it requires an understanding of the story. It reduces the differences between the different subtypes of headlines mentioned above to a matter of tactical choice: As we shall see, all the different subtypes target the same functional goal, that of relevance optimization, although they do it in different ways. The literature on newspaper headlines covers a wide range of theoretical and empirical topics, all the way from the grammar of English headlines to the effects of headlines on news comprehension...
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