Misleading Healthcare Headlines

Our health is something that is important to us all but it’s also something the tabloids know how to exploit. The ‘click’ based nature of digital journalism has created a need for attention seeking journalism and misleading headlines. Articles about the next thing that’s going to make us live past 100 or take us to an early grave prey upon our emotions so we can’t help but read them. It doesn’t matter how questionable the evidence, as long as men or women in white coats did the research.

So how do you write an article about health for the tabloids?

You may be thinking that health science is a very complicated subject, involving statistics and biology that take years to master. You needn’t worry yourself with such trivial issues. Always bear in mind that the ultimate goal is for as many people to click, read and share your article as possible. This keeps your boss and the advertisers happy.

You’re a health journalist. It’s a slow news day but you need to write something. The low hanging fruit of health journalism are the ‘miracle pill’ stories, which ultimately state that very little effort can lead to better health i.e. consuming vitamins, diet pills, fish oils etc. The billion dollar companies that make these pills will make these studies known to the press - don’t you worry.

So let’s say you get an email from a PR agency linking you to a study about the health benefits of fish oils. The study concludes that:

‘….taking one omega-3 fish oil tablet a day for a year could decrease your chance of heart disease from 0.02% to 0.01%.’

The headline is the most important thing. Firstly, remove any uncertain language: ‘an omega-3 tablet a day could decrease your chance of heart disease’ becomes ‘am omega-3 tablet a day decreases your chance of heart disease’. It may be slightly misleading but you need this headline to stand out. You then need to decide how to report the data. You effectively have two options:

a) Quote the absolute risk reduction at 0.01% - i.e. the difference in the risk of disease with and without treatment. This gives the reader an accurate description of the data (to put it in perspective if 10,000 people took fish oils daily there would be 1 fewer case of heart disease a year compared to 10,000 people who didn’t).

“Taking omega-3 fish oils daily reduces chance of heart disease by 0.01%”

This headline isn’t going to get Beverly from Accounting to share it with her book club now is it?

b) Quote the relative risk reduction, the new chance of getting disease divided by the old chance. In the hypothetical study the chance of getting heart disease has halved, from 0.02% to 0.01%. It’s just as valid as the absolute risk reduction but it makes a huge difference.

“Taking omega-3 fish oils daily reduces chance of heart disease by HALF”

… Beverly and her book club are going crazy.

To keep the advertisers happy, you go for option 2.

Now for the content of the article (the least important bit)

You need to convince the reader that the science is solid. This is easier than it sounds. People trust scientists much more than they trust journalists so you really need quotes from scientists working on the study. If this isn’t possible then just get scientist from an institute or university that sounds impressive. Cut this quote down to a few sentences that include as much science-y words as possible (the reader can skip over the text and be safe in the knowledge that the scientist knows what they are talking about). Here’s an example from the Daily Mail:

"Polyphenols in fruit, including resveratrol, increase gene expression that enhances the oxidation of dietary fats so the body won't be overloaded. They convert white fat into beige fat which burns lipids (fats) off as heat, helping to keep the body in balance and prevent obesity and metabolic dysfunction. We are using resveratrol as a representative for all the polyphenols."

Do you follow? Me neither. Don’t make any effort to make the science understandable, the less they understand, the more they trust the result.

…and you’re done. The article was shared 100,000 times on social media! You are amazing, the boss’ favourite. Congrats.

Now get your hands on something more sensitive, say a cancer study

A study by Cancer Research states that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has been shown to possibly increase the chance of ovarian cancer from 0.1% to 0.2% when taken for over 5 years. Now let’s tread carefully… thousands of women rely on HRT for a greater quality of life during menopause. In this scenario it may seem like the best option would be to quote the absolute risk at 0.1% i.e. for every 1000 people given HRT for over 5 years, 1 extra person would get ovarian cancer. This gives the reader an honest view of the data so they can make an informed decision about their treatment.

Or…. you could forget that and think of the clicks, the shares… cancer scares everyone remember. Don’t you want to be the boss’ favourite again? Why not just quote the relative risk, after all you’re not lying.

“HRT doubles chance of ovarian cancer!”

….the book club is going crazy.

Thank God that’s just a hypothetical situation I just came up with….right? Unfortunately not:

“HRT nearly doubles the risk of ovarian cancer, experts warn” – Daily Telegraph

‘HRT doubles risk of cancer’ – Daily Mail

Author: Adam Creamer

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