This is a story of headlines and the power they wield for good and evil (apologies for the melodrama). Words matter, and I, for one, am frustrated with the words in headlines often doing more harm than good.
I am a family doctor whose passion in life is preventing disease. I don’t want to see my patients suffering from diabetes or heart failure, nor from a contagious disease that is preventable through immunization. I strive every day to build trust, to understand where my patients are coming from, to gauge their goals as well as their concerns and worries, so that I can help them make their best choices for personal health and wellbeing. And I work hard to give them reliable and scientifically sound information to help guide those health decisions.
But every day, as I scroll through my news feeds and social media accounts, I encounter headlines that I know will undo (or at least seriously challenge) all my hard work. These headlines put doubt and fear into the hearts and minds of unsuspecting people—people who, living in this world of pandemics and political and social strife, are just trying to stay up to date on the facts. Let me pause for a minute to focus on that word—facts. Though this may be changing in our world of “fake news” and “alternative facts” (P.S.—there is no such thing), people tend to trust the news to provide the facts. And news outlets have a responsibility, an ethical imperative in service to the people, to do just that.
However, what many headlines seem to do these days is less often provide facts and more often provide spin and emotional triggers to grab your attention. Maybe news organizations and journalists feel they must do this, in this world of “gotta have it now,” scrolling, and short attention spans. But we must do better. Our words have power, and we must choose them carefully so that they contribute to the good in the world instead of seeding anxiety, fear, hate, and division.
Here’s a fact: Many Americans don’t read past the headlines. Examine your own scrolling behavior, and you will recognize this to be true (I know it is for me). A 2014 study conducted by the Media Insight Project found that nearly 6 out of every 10 people acknowledged reading nothing more than news headlines in the week prior to the survey. And a 2019 study looking at Facebook’s News Feed and self-perceptions of knowledge demonstrated that those who only read article previews thought they knew more than they actually did about the subject matter. This study evaluated participants’ political knowledge, but the same overconfidence is likely to occur when people read previews of science-related articles as well.
This illustrates what is known in social psychology as the Dunning-Kruger effect. This phenomenon states that people with little knowledge about a subject tend to overestimate their knowledge. And people with a great deal of knowledge about a subject tend to underestimate their knowledge. Essentially, they know enough to know how much they don’t know. We see the Dunning-Kruger effect play out every day in online and in-person discussions of vaccines, science, politics, and more.
Let’s look at the following headline. Imagine what message people are likely to take away (and then share with all their friends on Facebook) if they don’t read past the headline to find out the full details of the information in the article.
“More than 10,000 contract COVID after vaccination.”
This headline came from an actual news article in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News, published in May 2021. This long-term care newsletter was not likely to make it into many people’s Facebook or Twitter feeds. But if you Googled, as I did, based on a different article that I’d read whose title I couldn’t remember, “10,000 people contract COVID despite vaccination,” this was one of the first articles that popped up at the time. This means it was a popular search, which means that others, without the knowledge to interpret this number or the inclination to dig deeper, would also have seen this as a top search. And, likely not reading past the headline and assuming (we know what assuming does!) that articles at the forefront of a Google search are more newsworthy and/or reliable, they may have made some faulty assumptions.
My second job, outside of caring for people in my family medicine clinic, is as an immunization advocate and an expert on vaccine hesitancy. I have spent years trying to understand people’s vaccine concerns and fears. And I can see from a mile away that some people, maybe those inclined towards conspiratorial or anti-government/anti-science thinking, are going to read that headline and be convinced that COVID vaccines give you COVID (they don’t). “See?” they’ll think. “I knew ‘they’ were trying to make us sick.” Still, others, with the best of intentions, will read this and think that 10,000 people sound like a lot of people still getting sick, despite vaccines. They may wonder whether the vaccines are worth getting.
Unfortunate, and even harmful, wording in headlines isn’t just a phenomenon of inexperienced bloggers or newsletter writers. It happens in major news outlets as well. Take a look at a 2021 headline on the same topic, this time coming from CNN, which is generally regarded as having good journalistic integrity.
“So far, 5,800 fully vaccinated people have caught COVID anyway in the U.S., CDC says.”
This might make one think, “Well, what’s the point of getting vaccinated if I’m just going to catch COVID anyway?” Why couldn’t the author of this article have said something like, “So far, only 5,800 people in the U.S. have caught COVID despite being fully vaccinated, CDC says”? Wording it this way completely changes the tone. The word “only” sets the appropriate context for the number, instead of leaving it hanging in the air like some ominous cloud of failure. Of course, people going on to read the full article would come away with a clearer understanding of the reality of the situation. But, again, many are unlikely to do so. They may look only at the headline to guide their understanding, leading them away from confidence in these vaccines. And this is not a benign outcome. Lack of confidence in vaccines and subsequent refusal to get immunized has, without question, resulted in unnecessary illness and death.
And it’s not just the lay press that is at fault. The medical press sometimes also falls into the trap of using attention-grabbing, emotion-triggering headlines. Take the following as an example, this one coming from a Medscape article.
“Increased miscarriage risk with COVID boosters?”
If you click the link, you’ll find the real title of the article: “Study finds COVID boosters don’t increase miscarriage risk.” However, if readers don’t click the link to get the full story, they will likely come away from the headline believing the opposite.
As a doctor on the front lines of these vaccine conversations, my request is this. For journalists and news outlets—be they national or local, major networks or mom-and-pop blog shops, lay press, or scientific and medical news—as wonderful and educational as your writing may be, remember the data. For better or for worse (mostly for worse), people don’t generally read past the headline. Please choose your words carefully and try to envision how they will be interpreted. Seek to present facts in context and to avoid stoking fears and doubt. And if you are not sure how your words will be received, reach out to any of the multitude of physicians who are right there with you, working to share accurate information online and in social media. We are here for you!
And for those of us reading the news, let us not be a statistic. Let’s dig deeper into the articles that catch our attention. Please read and work to really understand what you are reading before you share it with your friends and family. If you are still confused about a particular medical or scientific claim, please reach out to a trusted medical provider to talk through your questions and concerns. They are there to help you sort through it all and to guide you in making healthy decisions for yourself, your family, and your community.