Headlines? Spit!

By John Richards

These are a couple of recent headlines and, ok, they are not quite in the ‘Freddie Starr ate my Hamster’ category but don’t we often see headlines that annoy because of their scientific inaccuracy?

Strange Fruit Kills Fat

Four Foods that Kill Fat and Seven Food Chemicals that Cause it.

Yes, a headline has to catch the eye and lure a reader into the article and, yes, they have to be short – four or five words is best, but do they have to be so unscientific?

It’s just so wrong to write about fat being ‘killed’. If you had excess blubber would you want it to become dead excess blubber? Imagine carrying around kilos of dead tissue! What would happen to the blood supply that used to nourish the fat? Of course, anything that really did kill fat would probably work by poisoning mitochondria. So it would certainly kill protein and therefore the person eating the foods himself!

As for ‘chemical’ well, of course, all matter is chemical, including food and you and me. Have they created a new, alien type of substance: ‘food chemicals’? Which universe are they to be found in?

It’s not as if it’s difficult to do better. What would be wrong with ‘Four Foods that may Reduce Fat and Seven Additives that may Increase it’?

Apart from the loose use of words, there is the unjustified level of certainty that a headline often conveys. Journalists seem to have no understanding of two things: firstly, how research tends to result in indications (and more questions) rather than answers and, secondly, the time it takes to get a potential new treatment to become a licensed medication.

There are several examples of reported “miracle cures” which treat everything from dyslexia to cerebal palsy and  cancer. Now while we’d all like to be the Scientist who deserves the headline ‘Cure for Cancer’ those few words imply inaccurate assumptions. Cancer is not one thing and so there is unlikely to be one cure for it. Just the addition of a question mark would solve the problem.

Headlines that trade caution for certainty headlines raise false hopes amongst the sick who may not realise that promising research results are unlikely to be turned into a treatment for ten years and they may not survive to benefit.

We have also seen similar before with the “Medias MMR Hoax” where the press whipped up a media frenzy about the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine which led to dangerous drops in vaccination rates. When it became apparent that the medias scare story was over-hyped what did the press do? They turned on Andrew Wakefield (to give him his full medical title) and blamed him solely. When taking stock of their own actions and complicity in spreading the story uncritically might have greatly improved health journalism. However scares like this are still whipped up by journalists with a lack of expertise in interpreting medical research.

We are now in an era when Bath Christians’ claims that ‘God can Heal’ got banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (and MPs have since lobbied to have this ruling overturned!) how much longer before higher standards of literality are going to be insisted upon from journalists?

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