This paper suggests an explanatory functional characterization of newspaper headlines. Couched within Sperber and Wilson's (1986) relevance theory, the paper makes the claim that headlines are designed to optimize the relevance of their stories for their readers: Headlines provide the readers with the optimal ratio between contextual effect and processing effort, and direct readers to construct the optimal context for interpretation. The paper presents the results of an empirical study conducted in the news-desk of one daily newspaper. It shows that the set of intuitive professional imperatives, shared by news-editors and copy-editors, which dictates the choice of headlines for specific stories, can naturally be reduced to the notion of relevance optimization. The analysis explains why the construction of a successful headline requires an understanding of the readers - their state-of-knowledge, their beliefs and expectations and their cognitive styles - no less than it requires an understanding of the story. It also explains the fact that skilled newspaper readers spend most of their reading time scanning the headlines - rather than reading the stories. © 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
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