After yesterday’s detour, I thought there was a decent chance today would be the day I finally wrote about The Hunger Games. I am, after all, creeping up on two months too late, and there should probably be some statute of limitations on these things.*
*Just kidding, there is no statute of limitations on what I choose to write about.
But then I came across too many objectionable things on the internet that deserved my attention first. There are so many objectionable things on the internet! Have you noticed how many objectionable things there are on the internet? Because I have, and frankly, it far overwhelms my capacity to respond to all of them. But that won’t stop me from trying.
My first response concerns the recent articles – if you’ve been online over the past couple of days, you’ve seen at least one – with headlines like ‘Coffee buzz: Study finds java drinkers live longer‘. In fact, I sent that exact AP article to a… friend I know to enjoy the occasional cup. In case the headline needs any elaboration, here’s the lede:
One of life’s simple pleasures just got a little sweeter. After years of waffling research on coffee and health, even some fear that java might raise the risk of heart disease, a big study finds the opposite: Coffee drinkers are a little more likely to live longer. Regular or decaf doesn’t matter.
And while the opening paragraph reads roses, the truth is obviously – as the article later admits – a little less straightforward:
Even in the new study, it first seemed that coffee drinkers were more likely to die at any given time. But they also tended to smoke, drink more alcohol, eat more red meat and exercise less than non-coffee-drinkers. Once researchers took those things into account, a clear pattern emerged: Each cup of coffee per day nudged up the chances of living longer.
Careful, though – this doesn’t prove that coffee makes people live longer, only that the two seem related. Like most studies on diet and health, this one was based strictly on observing people’s habits and resulting health. So it can’t prove cause and effect.
Given that the results are inconclusive at best, why did the AP run with such a sensational headline? The answer should be obvious, but that didn’t stop the Atlantic Wire from getting it all wrong in a short piece titled The Science News Cycle of Life: Rise, Fall, and Renewal:
It would be easy to say that this all stems from journalistic laziness. But, just as the circle of life depends on all parts of the eco-system [sic], so too does this cycle. If those communications directors never put those attractive headlines on their press releases, those first journalists would never notice said studies; never think of clever ways to tell the public about those studies; and never slap their own sensationalistic headlines on those studes. Without the borderline false headlines, we don’t get the contrarian debunking part, which is when we generally learn what the research really says. Without the cycle we might not ever learn anything about science at all.
On one count, the Atlantic is right: ‘journalistic laziness’ is not entirely at fault – it is only partially to blame. The idea that without sensationalized press release headlines even the journalists wouldn’t bother to read about science is suspect – it is, for some of them, a full-time job. And the idea that, without University PR departments coming up with interesting ways to present science, journalists would never think of some on their own is depressing if true (journalists should probably be able to think for themselves), but don’t worry: it’s probably not (journalists seem to have no problem sensationalizing non-scientific news stories).
All that said, the culprit is easy to identify, but for some reason, the Atlantic does its best to only skirt the issue:
This happens all the time. Remember that story about dinosaur farts from last week? Because of the Internet’s love of both dinosaurs and fart jokes, this one got a lot of media pick up, inspiring headline’s like Gawker’s “Dino Farts Likely Caused Mesozoic Climate Change, Say Dino Fart Scientists” and our own “Jurassic Farts Caused Global Warming.” Then, Smithsonian Magazine’s Brian Switek brought us the other side. And the next time something about dino-farts comes through, some journalist will have this research to prove some point either for or against farts.
Journalists go for the sensational headline for the same reason they also run with the funny and the absurd: their goal is to generate clicks, and the best way to do that is by writing a headline people are interested in clicking on.
That may sound tautological, but it’s not. I experiment with FBO (Facebook Optimization) all the time: a well-written post with an uninteresting title will sit untouched for hours. But replace that headline with one people might actually want to read, and it takes off. The problem journalists face is that sometimes there’s literally no way to present genuinely interesting information in an interesting-sounding way. So they can run those stories with boring headlines and not get paid, or learn the lesson the news-reading public is desperately trying to send them: more dinosaur farts, please.
As for the Atlantic’s final point: crediting sensational headline-writers with increasing awareness because they then force others to debunk their absurd claims barely merits a response. Disinformation is disinformation, and once disinformation is out there, it’s kind of difficult to take back. Spreading disinformation is irresponsible journalism.
And certainly, claiming that sensational headlines make for praise-worthy journalism is disinformation is irresponsible journalism.