Strained Overuse of “Strain” Straining Headlines Worldwide

I am calling for a moratorium on the overuse of the word “strain” in news headlines.

“Strain” and its variants (strains, strained, straining, etc.) are convenient verbs and modifiers that reporters use to communicate a general sense of tension between two or more entities without articulating exactly what that tension is. The word’s convenience in this respect has made it into one of the most overused terms in headlines that I have ever seen.

Seriously, check this out:

  • “Easing the Strains Between Japan and South Korea” (Wall Street Journal, 08/04/15)
  • “EU officials deny Greek deal strains” (Financial Times, 08/06/15)
  • “Inside Syria: Kurds Roll Back ISIS, but Alliances Are Strained” (New York Times, 08/10/15)
  • “Trump and Fox work to repair strained relationship” (USA Today, 08/10/15)
  • “U.S. Strains Mount After China Devalues Yuan” (Wall Street Journal, 08/11/15)
  • “Breakdown at BP Refinery Strains Midwest Gas Prices” (New York Times, 08/13/15)
  • “Argentina Feels the Strain of China’s Devalued Yuan” (Bloomberg, 08/13/15)
  • “Emerging markets feel the forex strain” (Financial Times, 08/14/15)
  • “Czech GDP Growth Surges to EU’s Fastest to Strain Currency Limit” (Bloomberg, 08/14/15)
  • “Crews Strained by Legionnaires’ Outbreak” (New York Times, 08/16/15)
  • “Record Number of Travelers Strain Seattle Airport”(New York Times, 08/16/15)
  • “Bovis: Rising Labor Costs Putting ‘Strain‘ on Business” (Bloomberg, 08/17/15)

As you can see, the New York Times and Bloomberg are especially egregious on this front. I should have taken a screen shot of that day a few weeks ago when the NYT published three “strains” on its homepage simultaneously. And these are just the headlines. “Strain” shows up constantly in ledes and throughout the main body as well — and sometimes in all three parts of an article!

I can appreciate (a) how tricky it can be to write short and snappy headlines for an attention-deficient audience, (b) the pressure of reporting (or creating?) news in a 24/7 news cycle , and lastly (c) how hard it is to write articles as news is evolving.

But surely we can try a little harder.

“Strain” can certainly be deployed if the news is evolving and the reporter isn’t quite ready to characterize the situation just yet (see point c above). However, just an extra stretch of the imagination–or a handy thesaurus–can help copyeditors find an equally unassuming synonym to avoid over-straining their headlines:

  • “Easing Historic Tension Between Japan and South Korea”
  • “Argentina Feels Anxiety over China’s Devalued Yuan”
  • “Emerging markets feel the forex pressure

In cases when the news situation can be described with greater specificity, I think these publications can afford to drill down a step further, i.e., tell it like it is. Some suggestions:

  • “Trump and Fox work to repair tempestuous relationship”
  • “Breakdown at BP Refinery Hikes Midwest Gas Prices”
  • “Legionnaires’ Outbreak Forces Crews to Work Overtime
  • “Record Number of Travelers Crowd Seattle Airport”

(Caveat: I’m not the best headline writer, and I’m sure the professional copyeditors at these newspapers can do far better.)

I do not want to sound overly critical of these newspapers and the great work that they do, so I duly apologize if I am coming across that way. Journalism is a tough business, and of course I wouldn’t want to throw more obstacles in their wake. But shouldn’t writing be, well, fun? In the rush to get the story out, shouldn’t someone take delight in crafting a unique and clever turn of phrase in the headline, or elsewhere?

I sure hope so.

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