Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Headline Bait and Switch?

Discovery News is running a story on the newly discovered ancient amphibian, Fedexia striegeli. It's a cool critter with a nutty name (it was found near a "FedEx site" in Pittsburgh, whatever that is), and deserving of coverage. What caught me was the headline, "Meat-Eating Amphibian Predated Dinos." Okay, so I'll admit it. Fossil amphibians don't make me jump up and down. But I clicked on the link, because I read the word "predated" to mean "preyed upon," a valid definition of the word, not the also-valid "preceeded in time" (definitions from wiktionary). It's a weird way to write a headline. Maybe it was just an odd word choice. But based on experience in news rooms, I kind of think it was deliberate. It's clearer if I spell out the two meanings:

Meaning 1: Meat-Eating Amphibian Lived Before Dinosaurs
Meaning 2: Meat-Eating Amphibian Ate Dinosaurs

Meaning 1 is a big "so what?" Lots of amphibians lived before and after the dinosaurs. Not exactly something that screams "HEY READ THIS!" Meaning 2, however, is rich with meaning. It's visceral; it sets expectations. How large was the amphibian? How complete is the fossil? Was it found with dinosaur remains in its gut? Questions like these are what, you know, compel someone to read a story.

Was this an intentional bait and switch? I don't know. Maybe, maybe not. At the very least, the headline invoked dinosaurs pointlessly, as Fedexia had nothing to do with them. This is common, and isn't exactly heinous. It's just interesting how the media works, and how readers' minds work. Or at least, how mine works - I wonder how many other people see "predate" and associate it with predation and not chronology.


  1. I thought on that too when I read the headline xDxD

  2. Oh, good! that makes me feel less crazy.

  3. Little late to chime in, but I agree, my first translatory thought was "munched upon."


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