When "sexy" titles are misinforming ones

Today I want to talk about “sexy” headlines. You know, the ones that grab your attention and make you open that link? The ones that are too scary to pass by? Sadly, most of the headlines of this type, in science articles, might be eye-catching, but not fact checked.

Because a lot of the time the journalist writing that science piece in your local newspaper doesn’t have a scientific background, she/he might not have the impulse to corroborate certain statements with actual scientist. Think about the whole “red meat” ordeal: tons of “major” newspapers jumped on the news that processed meats could cause cancer. Please note that from the screenshots I’ve chosen, the term goes from cancer-causing, linked to cancer, cancer risk “do cause cancer” and cancer threat. All of these terms, for the record, are not interchangeable, but I’m getting away of the main problem. 

Some examples of headlines.

The fact that processed meats contain certain compounds that could increase the risk of developing a certain type of cancer (mostly associated to the gut) is not necessarily news to a lot of scientist, whether they work on cancer or not. Same goes for red meat. What was news was the fact the World Health Organization had added them to their list of carcinogenic agents. What people got from all these headlines? Eating red meat is bad for you, don’t do it or for sure you will get cancer. I even found an article titled: Vade retro, red meat (Vade retro, viande rouge), an article that, despite what you could’ve think based solely on the title, is not telling you to cut your red meat intake to 0.

Back to the scary headlines. That week I had to spend several hours with different members of my family (immediate and extended) explaining that, yes it was known, yes, it might increase the chances of developing a certain cancer, no, that piece of bacon you ate yesterday won’t cause cancer alone, no you don’t need to go vegan, yes, it’s a good thing to keep things in moderation.

There are several things that some (not all) of those articles didn’t discussed. The fact that processed meat is in the same category than asbestos and cigarettes, doesn’t mean they work in similar ways. As everything that is harmful to your body, the amount of exposure on your own body, alongside a panoply of other factors, will come to affect the effect of said carcinogenic agents. However, the articles that did mention this would often do so in the 4th+ paragraph, much after the big conclusion that red meat is evil and you are going to get cancer, OMG…you get the point. So people with the TL;DR attitude would never even notice these very important points. Once again, this type of approach creates panic and misinformation. I understand that it’s through the title that the writer grabs your attention first, but here we are talking about almost sensationalist journalism. In a society with a diminished attention span, you need to have a “sexy” title, sure, but just make it a trustable-fact checked one.

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