Pirates! Poverty! War! FGM! On Manipulating Headlines to Capture a Reader
How the heck do writers get people to care about other parts of the world?
Editors often tell me (in my many rejection letters) that North Americans don’t care about the Horn of Africa.
Unless I can come up with a salacious or titillating angle (both intriguing words), why would a reader in, say, Minnesota, care about Djiboutian girls making bead jewelry? Maybe they like working their hands to create beautiful things. Maybe they are serving their families by earning extra income, maybe they are developing math, business, negotiation, marketing, and general work ethic skills, maybe they are forming a beautiful community.
Clearly, I do. And clearly, I hope you do. But writing about community, creativity, and beauty isn’t click-bait the way other things are.
(By the way, you can see the handiwork of these young women on Facebook and Instagram and you can even purchase it as of April 2 here)
Stories of hope and joy out of a far away region and culture, struggle to capture the attention of a general reader.
This is why Syrians are crying out for people to care but few respond. It is why many have not even heard of the war in Yemen, what has recently been called the worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years, even with Syria in the picture.
How do writers up the readership on stories from this part of the world which I find inherently fascinating and which I love, but about which few outsiders care?
Here’s what I came up with (while on a run with a friend who also cares about this part of the world):
It has to be about FGM. Female Genital Mutilation. Or pirates, poverty, war.
So here are some possible headlines, to get clicks, readers, and attention. Whether or not they actually represent reality is highly debatable.
For a story about Dreamer and Co, the bead business:
Girls Saved from Pirate Marriages Turn Trash to Treasure
(granted, they were never at risk of getting married to pirates, but I suppose its possible, in the sense of all things are possible)
For a story about the most amazing place I visited in Hargeisa, Somaliland during Marathon week, a place that almost made me cry:
They Don’t Have Clitorises but They Have a Library!
(because who wants to read about a library in Somalia, even if it is the most inspiring place in the entire city)
For a story about the incredible strides Somali women are making in medicine:
Raped in the Middle of the Day, Now a Medical Student
(as if sexual assault has anything to do with her capability as a student or doctor)
For a story about the running club in Djibouti, Girls Run 2:
With No Bras, Underwear, Socks, or Shoes, Girls Still Run
(as if the most important thing about them is what they lack, rather than what they have to offer)
Of course FGM, piracy, poverty, rape, war…all these things are significant issues for the region, for the world. I’m not saying they don’t matter or shouldn’t be written about. I write about them, I talk about them with friends. And there very well could be a place in an article about the first class of medical students to graduate to write about assault and trauma. But using those kinds of troubling details as the main point or a kind of requirement for getting through the editorial doors, skews stories and perpetuates the ‘exotic’ otherness of people, rather than our shared humanity.
We are all broken, broken in unique ways. We can also all celebrate unique stories of healing and beauty, while lamenting the brokenness, without dehumanizing each other.
Maybe it is wishful thinking, to imagine people care about those far away and outside our own borders. There is both too much brokenness and too much beauty to expect anyone to hold it all. I can’t summon the emotional energy to care about all the joys and problems of the world. But at the same time, there are billions of us. Surely there is room for all the stories, surely we can diversify a little bit more, stretch our minds past presidents, past preconceived ideas, past our comfort zones.
Surely we can tell all the stories, in all their dark and beautiful complexity, without insisting on twisting them.
(and no, I will not be using any of those headlines. Preempting the fail of sarcasm online here)