Running with Headlines & Headline Science Troubles:
For today’s musings in scicomms…What’s in a headline? And what do we do with headlines?
To explain, let me share a Running with Headlines experience that happened:
I recently had Dr. Shuji Ogino (Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School) on my Causes or Cures podcast to discuss an article he and his team published in Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology. The article was about a potentially emerging epidemic of early-onset cancer in young people, folks defined as under 50. Due to the article’s provocative nature, it was widely cited in the press and on social media. I saw several popular “wellnessy” Instagram accounts take screenshots of the articles’ headlines (like the one below), post them and blame the COVID-19 vaccine. The many comments underneath the post generally supported the poster. I didn’t see anyone questioning whether or not the poster misinterpreted the headline and/or article. When I shared the podcast on Twitter, with the headline “The evidence for an emerging epidemic of early-onset cancer, with Dr. Shuji Ogino”, someone told me to “Wake up” along with a vaccine emoji, essentially implying that the emerging epidemic was due to the COVID vaccine and I was “asleep.”
The problem in this is that the original article was in no way, shape or form related to the COVID-19 vaccines. It describes an increasing trend in early-onset cancer in young people that has been happening for decades. During the podcast recording, Dr. Ogino presented slides to show me how the trend has been increasing in subsequent birth cohorts for decades. The article describes how exposures while in utero or while a child may be linked to early-onset cancers hitting people in their thirties and forties. Exposures and risk factors include the western diet, shifts in the microbiome, shift work, obesity, infections, smoking and alcohol. When I pointed this out to that person on Twitter, he/she basically ignored me and told me that the most pressing issues is “the rising rates of cancer due to the jab.” ( Or something along those lines.) For the record, I haven’t seen data indicating that. I know there are numerous anecdotal reports out there; that there are legitimate concerns about myocarditis, and there are legitimate concerns about durability and risks vs benefit considerations in different age groups, and all of those concerns should be addressed. But this particular article and corresponding podcast has nothing to do with the COVID vaccine. Yet that didn’t stop people from running with a headline and putting two and two, falsely, together.
I suppose there are a couple lessons in this. For starters, read beyond the headlines. They don’t tell the whole story and running with “headline science” will delude us and, perhaps, whoever we share the article with. Secondly, gone are the days of the paperboy tossing a newspaper on our porch. We exist in a highly competitive digital landscape, where media sources feel pressure to get the word out as soon as possible and get as many clicks as possible, because clicks equal money. Advertising, subscriptions…whatever. It all comes down to money. To get those clicks, they often make headlines provocative, dramatic, fear-inducing and/or juicy. (I’m not saying that happened here but in general, it happens.) On one hand, I get it. If they don’t get the clicks, they’ll lose money to other sites with the juicer headline bait, maybe eventually have to fire people and maybe have to close shop. As consumers of the news, we should be mindful that they do it. At least having that awareness will keep us (sometimes) from running with headlines and creating a story in our head that just isn’t true.
Thanks for reading Running with Headlines, gang. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section. In addition, feel free to check out some of my other health comms musings here: