Present tense in the news-we've gone too far!

It always bothers me when newscasters and headline writers move stories from the past to the present. “President signing bill” is just plain wrong when he signed it four hours ago. It should be “President signed bill.”

Yesterday, however, it was taken too far. WAY too far. The newspaper had a headline reading (approximately), “Close call in the mountains spurs local man to produce high-quality maps.”

I’m always looking for good new high-quality maps, so I started reading the article. “Wait a minute!” I thought. “I know these maps.” The story they were writing in the present tense happened in 1983. The man has been making these maps for 22 years!

Perhaps a journalist can jump in here and tell me why on Earth someone would write a headline that way?

I can’t speak for everyone, but we don’t write headlines that way. However, I was taught that cutlines should be written in the present tense. So if it’s a caption under a picture of the president signing a bill, it should say “President Prude signs the bill making it illegal to wave panties in public.” The cutline is describing what’s happening in the picture, which is the president signing the bill, present tense. In the story, it should say that the president signed the bill four hours ago.

Sorry for the double post. I forgot something. Using the present tense really is sometimes okay in headline writing (though in the last case you described, I don’t get why it was done that way). For example, the accompanying story for the signing photo might have a headline of “President Prude sets precedent with panty-waving prohibition.”

This post brought to you by the letter “P.”

Broadcast leads should be in present or present perfect tense. “Dick Cheney has signed a confession that he outed C-I-A agent Valerie Plame.” “Lawmakers are meeting at this hour to discuss the new Veon-Piccola Grocery Bill that is currently before the state legislature.”

This makes the news seem fresh; newspapers are yesterday’s news on purpose, but radio and TV are supposed to be relatively recent. Keeping leads in the present or present perfect tense gives that illusion.


It is especially jarring when a newspaper says, in an obit, “Leon Viscous Dies.” No, Mr. Viscous died, or is dead. It isn’t still going on.

Ah, you are too young to remember Generallisimo Francisco Franco’s months-long death …

It’s called, ahem, “The Historic Present” and is meant to make events more, well, immediate and relevant. Although journalists do over use it. (It’s very common in jokes too. “A man walks into a bar … ouch!” :smack: )

My personal bugbear is “the future in the past” used in reconstructions of crimes / docu-dramas etc. “Little did she know that this would be the last time she was to see him alive …”

I do understand the concept of the historic present tense, although it annoys me–especially when television newscasters use it for events of momentary duration (“The governor announcing today…”). What bothered me about the newspaper headline which inspired my OP was that it was using present tense for something that happened 22 years ago! I was two paragraphs into the story before I realized it wasn’t current news.

Some journalism experience here.

The number one reason the headline was written like that was because newspapers have a style that they tend to follow religiously. A consistent style makes the paper more readable; regular readers become accustomed to it, and a style change can be quite jarring.
Most newspapers follow a common style to a large extent. A common source for style rules is the Associated Press Stylebook.

The consistent use of present tense in headlines and cutlines gives a sense of immediacy, as mentioned, and actually does eliminate confusion in many cases, especially since it’s what readers are accustomed to.
Additionally, headline writing is kind of a pain. You’ve got a small space to attract attention to the story and convey the actual meaning of the story, and again, there are certain style rules that should be followed. Example: You can’t write a headline that says:
President to
Sign Bill

You’d have to go with something like:
President to Sign
Controversial Bill

If there’s more than one line to the headline, the lines have to be close to the same length to look nice.
Generally, you can cram more into a headline with present tense than with past tense: “spurs” takes less room than “spurred”.

I agree that “Close call in the mountains spurs local man to produce high-quality maps” would have been better stated “Close call in the mountains spurred local man to produce high-quality maps.” Most likely the person who wrote the headline was working under a deadline and just didn’t think about changing the style. It takes a lot of headlines to make a newspaper, and quite frequently they get slapped out as quickly as possible, especially in the back pages.

That can be done to excellent chilling effect, though. In a recent Esquire article (might’ve been GQ), the author described a North Korean program of kidnapping Japanese civilians and forcing them to act as translators/language teachers. A woman and her mother were walking along a beach and the paragraph ended “In five minutes, they will never see each other again.”

Good points. On this last one, though, it wasn’t in the back pages. It was page 1, above the fold (above the masthead, in fact, driving us to a story on the front page of section B).