Headline writers: Please take a virology course

24 January 2013

Yesterday Denise Grady wrote in the New York Times about the end of the moratorium on influenza H5N1 virus research. The story headline read:

Research to resume on modified, deadlier bird flu

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reprinted Ms. Grady’s story with the following headline:

Studies will resume on deadly modified flu virus

Where do these headlines come from, outer space? The H5N1 viruses produced by Kawaoka and Fouchier, which transmit by aerosol among ferrets, are far less virulent than the parental H5N1 virus! Furthermore, the moratorium applied to all research on H5N1 virus, not just that related to these transmission experiments.

If most of the public obtains their virology information from the popular press, it is no wonder that much of the public distrusts these H5N1 experiments.

Yesterday I taught the first lecture of the 2013 version of my virology course (details forthcoming).  I told the students that one reason I want to teach virology is to enable them to understand why headlines like these are wrong.

Maybe some of my students will one day write the headlines and get them right.

  • urbantravels

    Alas, even if science journalists raise their game overall, it’s editors that write the headlines; and they seem to have a special genius for getting it wrong.

    Perfectly good piece of science journalism + boneheaded headline is an all too common combination.

  • kellylatta

    Actually it’s the copy desk that generally writes heads and they are supposed to read the article first in order to accurately summarize it which is harder than it sounds.

  • urbantravels

    That’s right – copy editors, since desks can’t actually write. :-) I don’t mean to imply that assignment editors usually write those pitiful headlines — although in my experience, a lot of them probably wouldn’t do any better.

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    I don’t care who is writing the headlines – they need to take my virology course. It’s online and free at virology.ws/course

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    The Grady article is actually well balanced. For example: “Of 610 known cases in people since 1997, slightly more than half have been fatal. But the real death rate is not known and could be lower than half because some mild cases may go uncounted.”

  • http://exercisesinauxology.blogspot.com/ Alexandra Jacunski

    I think the problem is that the editors don’t seem to give much of a bother whether the information they’re presenting is correct or not — they just want to sell papers. And nothing sells papers like sensationalism does. Alas.

  • kellylatta

    I’m guessing you don’t know many editors – most don’t. A professional newsroom environment is like navigating the Daytona 500 at 200 mph at any given time as dozens and even hundreds of articles come across various desks. Most of them are on a very unforgiving deadline of hours unlike research papers that can be written over days and months. It takes a special kind of person to multi-task at a stress level that most people couldn’t begin to manage. Sensationalism is the last thing on their mind unless they are a supermarket tabloid.

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    Kelly, this is not an excuse to mislead readers. A surgical suite is also a very stressful place, but mistakes are not accepted. If they are not foisting sensationalism then they are misleading the reader which is unacceptable under any conditions. If they can’t take the heat, get out.

  • kellylatta

    Alexandra said editors are all about selling sensationalism, I merely pointed out that is rarely the case. As you noted about surgery, people are human and mistakes are made. I wouldn’t defend mistakes in either case nor did I although I might add it is rare to die from a bad headline. Making a mistake usually isn’t a reason to give up what you do – if we did everyone on earth would be idle. Have you contacted the ombudsman at the New York Times? It wouldn’t hurt to make your case with Margaret Sullivan.

  • http://exercisesinauxology.blogspot.com/ Alexandra Jacunski

    While I understand that a professional newsroom environment is highly stressful, finding sensationalized science headlines is far too common an occurrence. Perhaps I am too cynical in saying that it is just about selling papers, but there is certainly a certain level of either laziness, incomprehension, or mere lack of attention to detail that leads to such headlines.

    Indeed, by your own argument, an editor unfamiliar with the subject certainly wouldn’t have the time to familiarize himself with the nuances of the H5N1 issue before crafting the title for the paper. I would expect most people, put in that position, would choose to write the attention-grabbing title rather than spending too much time engaging the topic.

    I also did an experiment (n=1 google search, so clearly it’s highly significant :) ). I typed in H5N1 and looked at the “news” section of google – of the ten articles on the first page, three have slightly negative language (‘controversial’ twice, and one report of deaths; several also have ‘mutant’ in them, which tends to hold negative connotations to the layperson unless they’re talking about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or superheroes), four strongly negative (‘deadly,’ ‘terrifying’) and two are relatively misleading (“Ready or Not” in the title – the experiments are being done in part so that we CAN be ready if the virus jumps to mammals in nature and becomes transmissible to us; additionally, another article describes the virus as “man-made,” which seems a little skewed to me). I would say that only two of the articles are fully neutral in their introductions, with another two being fair in a neutral setting, but skewed towards negativity if other articles presented with them are negative.

    My point from this little foray into the headlines and first few sentences on google: if I’m an editor trying to pull together a whole bunch of stuff at one time, especially on a story that’s relatively developed to date, and I come across an area with which i’m not familiar and I want to do a little research – well, my five minutes gave me a very unfair image of the issue. This type of sensationalism is certainly self-perpetuating. It is prevalent in science and it isn’t fair to either the field or the people who work in it.

    (My apologies for any grammatical errors – I’ve been aligning sequences for a little too long today.)

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    Few people seem to care about poorly crafted science headlines – I do and I’m making noise about it. It is important for the public to understand science, and if the Times and others are going to interfere, I am going to complain. Perhaps the ombudsman is a good idea, but I doubt the Times cares whether their headlines are right or not.

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    Here is a comment from over on Google + concerning this story:

    “I used to write headlines. Because of impending deadlines, there is a lot of pressure to come up with something catchy in a very short amount of time. It would be nice if the writers had more input on the headlines, but unfortunately without knowing what the page layout will be like and how much space there’s going to be, it’s not really all that feasible. Add to that that most people who go into journalism didn’t major in the sciences, and it can be easy for editors and subeditors to overlook this stuff.”

    There has to be a better way. I realize all headline writers can’t be scientists, but at least in the case of a science headline, can’t they run it past someone who *understands*?

    I have another solution – get rid of the newspapers! Sorry, forgot that is already happening.

  • kellylatta

    Okay, maybe this will make sense.

    If you read a peer-reviewed paper by say a podiatrist about virology and the only evidence for the statements made was I have observed this, but my conclusions are based on assumptions which I have not directly verified and I don’t even know what percentage of the time it happens or under what circumstances, what would you say about correlation vs causation and assumptions without direct evidence?

    And if you don’t let people know when a mistake is made how will they know? Osmosis? And mistakes, regardless of the field, are easier to correct when you understand specifically why they occurred.

    You have a legitimate concern, but I really don’t understand the source of all the assumptions. I also read Retraction Watch. Should I assume that all scientists are more focused on fame and climbing the career ladder than they are in getting it right? Or that anyone who has anything to do with Big Pharma is unethical? And more than a few of the papers aren’t just a mistake, they are deliberate misconduct. Are all scientists like that?

    Conflict of interest: I have a degree in journalism, I’ve worked in more than a few newsrooms, I’ve sat through more than one morning meeting where the mistakes of the previous day were discussed and I read this blog because like the vast majority of my colleagues, I care about getting it right.

  • alanst

    The Star Tribune headline doesn’t seem so bad to me. The word “deadly” in this context, at least to a non-virologist lay reader, is naturally understood in comparison to the ordinary seasonal flu. Now there isn’t enough evidence to assert that the Fouchier strain in particular is more deadly than ordinary flu. But given that avian flu is generally thought to be, by the standards of mainstream media this is not major journalistic overreach.

    It is admittedly more difficult to defend the Times headline, which one might have tried had it omitted “bird”.

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  • Elizabeth_Hart

    I see comments on the Virology Blog are now moderated…how interesting. Censorship coming into play here?

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    Recently some individuals have posted links to objectionable sites in the comments; so I am moderating comments with links. If something similar turns up I will ask the author to re-post without the link.

  • Elizabeth Hart

    Objectionable sites? Gosh, what qualifies as an ‘objectionable site’ on the Virology Blog?

    I also left a response to ‘Chris’ on the “TWiV217: I just flu in and my arms are shot” discussion thread, and that doesn’t seem to have made it past moderation…