A new study conducted by the U.S. National Toxicology Program published Thursday found a relatively small increase in cancer among rats who were exposed to the same variety of radiation that cell phones emit. That's it: a study was conducted in rats, which are not proxies for humans; using radiation, but not actual cell phones; in a lab setting, which is different from real world scenarios.
In headlines covering this one study, which has zero implications for humans thus far, many news outlets, naturally, ignored these details. According to The Wall Street Journal, "Cellphone-Cancer Link Found in Government Study." There was nary a rat to be found in the Daily News' headline: "Hold the phone, Central! Cellphone radiation can cause cancer: study." And Mother Jones went with "'Game-Changing' Study Links Cellphone Radiation to Cancer," complete with an image of a cell phone shooting electric bolts into a human brain like so:
For Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor at James Madison University and author of The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat, it was too much.
Levinovitz tweeted an epic missive about responsible health journalism (here's the rant in its entirety):
Levinovitz told HuffPost that he was especially put off by Mother Jones' subhed ("It's the moment we've all been dreading,") and by the art that accompanied the article.
"What I saw there was a tacit education in how science works that is fundamentally mistaken," he said. "That’s what really frustrated me."
The idea that a single study can overturn everything that came before it combined with the sense of urgency a word like "dread" connotes to the reader is essentially a form of fear mongering. "All of it was an oversimplification that preys on fear and misrepresents the way in which scientific progress works," Levinovitz said.
Why sensational headlines matter
If you get your news from social media, the headline is even more important.
"We've found effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading," Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, which measures real-time online traffic for major online news organizations, tweeted in 2014.
That's right. People share headlines on social media without reading them, so a headline really matters -- it may be the only exposure a reader gets to the story. A sensational headline attached to an otherwise accurate news article is just as likely to propagate fear and misinformation as tabloid fodder.
"We know that the way that we frame things really shapes how people read it," Levinovitz said. "People sometimes don’t finish the whole article. They certainly don’t click through to the study. What you communicate at the beginning, the way you frame anything is extremely important."
The Catch-22, of course, is that a snappy headline is likely what entices a reader to click on your story in the first place. That tension, between wanting to be simultaneously compelling and accurate in a headline, isn't lost on Levinovitz.
"I’m sympathetic to the problems that journalists run into," he said, noting that his own book, The Gluten Lie, had a dramatic title, although the book wasn't sensationalistic.
"I understand wanting to get people to read something. I think the problem is that when the headline contains what looks like an assertion, that’s what people are going to remember."
We are all Mother Jones
This isn't just a Mother Jones problem. All health and science journalistic enterprises struggle with this balance between enticing readers and accurately representing the data. (When reached for comment, Mother Jones responded via email that the current headline "is more accurate and less inflammatory than the one that Alan Levinovitz suggests using." They've since changed the subhed to include the fact that the study was conducted in rats.)
News organizations have resources to fact check studies and good health journalists have both the connections to talk directly to the scientists and the education to tell a good study from a bad one.
The general public doesn't have these resources at its disposal. "People don’t know how to distinguish between nuanced and truthful claims in science and ones that are not," Levinovitz said. "It makes it hard for people to know when it is actually dangerous."
Health journalists are tasked both with educating readers about new scientific research, and also educating the public about what science is. To use those resources to scare and confuse the public is a misuse of power, at best.
We need to hold each other accountable
"Misinformation appears to cause more damage when it’s subtle than when it’s blatant," Maria Konnikova wrote in a 2014 New Yorker article about how headlines change the way we think. "We see through the latter and correct for it as we go. The former is much more insidious and persistent."
Konnikova cites a near-chronic complaint among journalists: that critics of their work are only responding to their headlines: "'Read the article!' the writer often wants to scream."
Unfortunately, reading the article might not be enough to correct the miscommunication between author and reader. Once the headline's seed has been planted, even readers who do go on to read the article still react, in part, to the thesis promised in the headline.
"It's the kind of reporting where if you did it about another person, you’d get sued," Levinovitz said, of health journalists propensity for exaggerating, caricaturing and going beyond what the facts of research show.
"We need to take that really seriously," he said. "Science and truth are just as sacred as people’s reputations. We should treat them the same way."
It's a lofty goal. "It’s not always easy to be both interesting and accurate," Konnikova wrote. But "it’s better than being exciting and wrong."
So how can we do better? Levinovitz admits that it's a tough question.
The only real solution, he says -- other than the unlikely scenario in which scientists sue journalists for publishing misinformation about their work -- is to hold each other accountable when a publication prints something that's over the top.
There's also a danger in click-driven journalism, where people don't pay for the information itself. "People are getting free information and it's paid for in clicks," he said. "The information is going to reflect that." Health journalism is especially fraught, as it attempts to explain and simplify complex subjects that have real effects on how people live their lives.
HuffPost is guilty of this (does this byline look familiar?). But let's be better. And we can start by including the word "rats" in our headlines when appropriate.