I keep reading over the article and for the life of me cannot figure out why did the Army ‘kill’ Nigerian militants instead of the Army simply killing Nigerian militants? There is no uncertainty, allegory or metaphor that I can see that would explain it.
I think it’s because the story’s source is unconfirmed, possibly anecdotal. Still, it’s rather jarring to the eye, isn’t it. They’d have been better off saying “Army allegedly kills Nigerian militants”
My guess would be that they are suggesting that the report is based on information received rather than being witnessed first hand by the BBC reporter. The stress on ‘sources say’ suggests to me that this is the case - although it would probably have been better to include the whole headline as an attributed quotation: ‘Army kills Nigerian militants’. Beyond that, I’m as ‘baffled’ as you are.
But that’s not headlinese – it’s too wordy. Quotation marks are standard fare in headlines to indicate an allegation that is unproven. You see it a lot on court reports, too. I’m told, though, that they do not necessarily stand up as a defence against libel - writing Mr X “eats babies” could still land you in trouble.
I agree that the “kills” example is a bit jarring. I would have written it as Army “kills Nigerian militants” instead, as it makes clear what the claim is – at the moment it makes it sound as if the army definitely did something to the militants, but may not have killed them.
Just to note, the BBC is very quick to respond to corrections of grammar, typos, and poor writing. Click the “contact us” at the bottom right on the screen, “website,” and then “style, accuracy, grammar.” I have sent a comment; we’ll see if they change it.