Headlines usually are the first part of a news article people see — and, often, the only thing they read before sharing a story on social media. That’s why well-crafted headlines are critical. Incorrect, incomplete or misleading headlines spread misinformation.
Bad headlines on stories about health and medical research can be especially harmful considering many people make decisions that affect their personal health and safety — and the health and safety of loved ones — based on news reports.
Audiences might pursue a particular medical procedure or even brush off guidance from their doctor in response to something they read or heard in a news report, researchers write in “ Defining and Detecting Fake News in Health and Medicine Reporting ,” published last year in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
To bring attention to the problem, the watchdog site HealthNewsReview.org published a series examining patient harm from misleading news stories . The site, founded by veteran health journalist Gary Schwitzer , rated U.S. news outlets’ health coverage for many years before losing funding in December 2018. It also spotlighted problematic headlines on its blog and in its “ Headline vs. Study ” series.
We created this tip sheet to help newsrooms improve headlines on stories about health and biomedical research. To make sure we address some of the most common mistakes, we asked several prominent health and science journalists to identify problems they see regularly and how to avoid them.
Here’s their advice: 1. Don’t use these words and phrases when describing research findings: breakthrough, revolutionary, life-changing, game-changing, landmark, miracle, Holy Grail.
Journalists should take care not to exaggerate the importance or novelty of a new study. News outlets overuse these descriptors, which seldom apply to the research findings featured in their coverage.
“’Breakthrough’ is the one that leaps out to me because there so rarely is a breakthrough,” says Deborah Blum , a Pulitzer-prize winning science journalist who is director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and founding publisher of the nonprofit digital science magazine Undark . “I and most of my science journalism friends want to go screaming down the street when we see that in a headline.”
Journalists sometimes use these words and phrases to imply a new drug or other medical intervention will drastically improve people’s lives — even when it could be years before authorities are able to determine whether it’s safe and effective for public use, adds Cristine Russell , a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs .
“When you’re a responsible [journalist] working in health and medical science, you really have to think of the audience and how vulnerable they are,” says Russell, also a past president of both the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and the National Association of Science Writers . “You can be optimistic to some degree, but don’t overpromise.” 2. If your story examines research conducted on animals, make sure neither the headline nor the first sentence implies the findings apply […]