Why headlines matter: curbing the PR spin

Penny Mitchell – Senior Account Executive at Spreckley

One of the sources of disdain for mainstream health media is its reputation for sensationalism. A slow news day on the health pages is a rarity. Even if there isn’t a new strand of Ebola to declare, or a new origin of breast cancer to reveal, there is always a novel, ‘first ever’ discovery from ‘a new study’. To anyone who holds a basic respect for science, the terms ‘research suggests’ and ‘according to scientists’ will have you shuddering with contempt.

Take the headline reported a few days ago: ’White bread and pasta may increase the risk of depression’. While a significant link between symptoms of depression and high dietary glycaemic index (GI)/ glycaemic load were concluded, the observational analysis couldn’t possibly verify a cause of the common mental illness. It certainly doesn’t have the capacity to suggest, as it does, that ‘dietary interventions could serve as treatments and preventive measures for depression’. What you also don’t see is that the research only actually studied post-menopausal women, so generalising to the general population, including to men and children, is completely out of scope.

More often than not popular health articles will recommend advice for readers – a less than ideal consequence if the research itself does not hold up. If a news story claims the source of a disease, would you question the association? Perhaps not, but correlation is not causation – many factors are linked without reason or sense. Murders caused by blunt objects are decreasing, as is the marriage rate in New York – does that give cause to presume that New York marriages are tragically deadly? What’s more, if an article asserts a new treatment for humans, would you naturally suppose the research had been associated with humans, rather than… rodents?

In addition to unashamed hyperbole, this is the focus of my criticism: quoting causal statements drawn from correlational research, and offering conclusions to human health from animal research.

Distortions to the conclusions of research aren’t simply humorous and harmless. Inaccurate headlines can confuse readers and influence a reader’s health related behaviour. The cumulative impact of everyday misreporting can erode public trust in science and medicine, and those working in health PR should care about this. The media can also influence the behaviour of scientists, doctors and the entire breadth of the industry. While news reporters are responsible for fact checking ahead of publication, the blame lies proportionately when it comes to the promotion of misinformation. Those writing the releases have the same obligations of precision as those reporting. We can all empathise with the incentive – PRs are encouraged to promote their clients’ work and journalism demands short deadlines, but skirting on that responsibility can harm the public’s understanding of what health and medical research means, as well as diminish the reputations of the institutions doing the work.

Science is represented in the headlines as black and white, but perhaps it should appear as the endless shades of grey that more accurately reflect the intrinsic uncertainty of health. Improving the accuracy of releases represents a key opportunity for reducing misleading health news. We all have a responsibility to the precision of our content, so let’s ensure the quality of health news isn’t compromised.