First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Headline Writers

by Rick Austin February 13, 2012 03:05 PM

It’s the headline writers who are making us all stupid, and I think sports medicine specialist Carol Torgan agrees with me. She’s on the editorial panel for Health News Review, and she recently blogged about one of her pet peeves, the “exercise pill.”


She points out a variety of ridiculous headline claims from myriad publications, including Scientific American, the New York Times, and BBC News. I’ve blogged previously about sensational headline splashes that frequently bear little or no relation to the articles they’re promoting. It’s kind of like when The National Enquirer (not that I’ve ever looked at it) trumpets, “Oprah Heart Attack Drama” and the accompanying article turns out to be Oprah’s aunt’s cousin’s step-granddaughter visited the emergency room complaining of chest pains and was sent home with antacids.


There are two negative effects operating here. First, when a reputable publication like Scientific American or the New York Times makes a play for more reader’s eyeballs, uncritical readers take the headlines at face value and accept that there is a miraculous breakthrough. Second, readers who take the time to read the article and do some critical thinking are confused and put off by the gulf between the headline and the actual details.


Crazy headlines are par for the course at places like TMZ and Gawker, where they’re totally transparent about their quest for more eyeballs and more mouse-clicks. But should mainstream publications be paying more attention to their impact on readers, particularly with dense scientific and medical reporting?


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