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In Journalism, what is a Screamer?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A screamer is a distinctive headline which has been written with the goal of drawing attention to the article beneath it. While all headlines arguably serve this function, screamers demand attention, insisting that readers turn to the article in question immediately and without delay. Screamers are typically sensational, and sometimes specifically designed to be provocative. For some good examples of screamers, peruse the tabloids at the checkout stand, which often have a plentiful array of screamers to choose from.

Screamers appear on the front page, because the idea is to entice consumers into buying the newspaper or magazine to read what's inside. In newspapers, screamers are always above the fold, ensuring that they will be visible, and they are often larger than the surrounding headlines so that they really stand out. Screamers may also be italicized or underlined for extra effect, and some companies also allow the use of punctuation marks in screamers; exclamation points, for example, will really make a screamer stand out.

This term is most commonly used in print journalism, in reference to newspaper and magazines. Screamers also appear in online journalism, however, and at more adventurous sites, they may literally scream at the viewer, with the use of an embedded sound file. Screamers also show up on television, in the scrolling news feeds at the bottom of some network feeds. Urgent breaking news may show up as a screamer while the network prepares to cut to a journalist, for example, ensuring that viewers stay pinned to the network for an update.

Some newspapers eschew the screamer, preferring a more stately and elegant look; the New York Times is probably the most famous for its staid, unremarkable appearance. More stately papers prefer descriptive headlines which sum up the content of an article, like "Politician X Speaks at Union Rally," allowing readers to get a quick idea of the coverage on the front page, while screamers highlight the sensational content of a news item, as in "Politician X Claims 'Oil Companies Should be Nationalized'."

Writing a screamer, or any headline, takes talent. Headlines need to be succinct, clear, and to the point, and editors need to be careful about unintentional double entendres and glaring mistakes such as the infamous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline of 1948, which the Chicago Tribune may never live down. In the case of a screamer, more journalistic license is involved, and the editor may generate a headline which punches up tension to draw the eyes.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By dautsun — On Aug 29, 2012

@strawCake - I remember those headlines also. The funny thing about using a screamer headline for news like that is that you don't really need to do it! Both of those events were so newsworthy, people would probably buy the paper anyway, even without a sensational looking headline.

I personally don't think there is anything wrong with using screamers though, even if they aren't necessary. Newspapers aren't a public service, they're ran by companies who want to make a profit. So I can understand why they might do things to increase their sales!

By strawCake — On Aug 29, 2012

I know screamers are meant to entice people, but I've noticed newspapers also use screamers for really major news stories. During my lifetime, I can remember seeing screamers about President Clinton's impeachment and the 9/11 attacks.

By KaBoom — On Aug 28, 2012

@Ted41 - I think the terms fits, but I personally hate being "screamed" at by my newspaper. I definitely favor the more "stately" papers, such as the New York Times. I would rather have my news without a dose of sensationalism.

I really like the headlines that just summarize the store, instead of putting an opinion into it. Also, I find that a lot of screamers are kind of misleading, and just designed to get your curious enough to by the paper. Then when you read the story, you realize it's not exactly the news you thought it was!

By Ted41 — On Aug 27, 2012

I've never heard the term "screamer" applied to a newspaper headline, but I definitely think it fits. Especially because these sorts of headlines are usually bold, in all caps, and in bigger type than the other headlines. And everyone knows that all caps are pretty much the typed equivalent of shouting or screaming!

By LittleMan — On Sep 01, 2010

What would be the equivalent of a screamer in radio?

By galen84basc — On Sep 01, 2010

You really have to admire the skill that can go into those screamers sometimes though. I used to live in a town where the local paper could take the dullest story and somehow manufacture screamer out of it.

Really gave me a new respect for my local writer!

By closerfan12 — On Sep 01, 2010

Like they say, if it bleeds, it leads. Hooray for modern journalism...

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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