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Lab Mom

Lab Mom spent 15 years as a Lab Manager in Academia before off-tracking in 2010 to stay at home with her two daughters. She blogs about the juggling act of motherhood and a science career, which encompasses a lot more then the cliche work-life balance.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

I have noticed this story circulating around my social circles, and I was ignoring the hype (as usual) because I am keenly aware of how the mainstream media loves to spin a good science story.

In case you didn't hear about the newest fear-inducing phobia (Diet Soda), let me just give you a few headlines:

MSN: "Daily diet soda tied to higher risk for stroke, heart attack"

USA Today: "Study: Diet soda linked to heart risks"

CBS: "Diet Soda, Heart Attack Linked: Is Anything Safe to Drink?"

newser:"Diet Soda's Dark Side: Heart Attacks, Strokes"

ABC: "Diet Soda: Fewer Calories, Greater Stroke Risk?"

The irony here is that when you go on to watch the ABC news clip, their expert actually says "This is one of the worst studies I've seen capturing headlines" but you wouldn't get that based on their headline, unless that is what the question mark is supposed to indicate. Ahh, subtle.

To be fair, quite a few of the articles do at least mention at some point that more research is needed, but when you read their tweet, or browse their homepage headline that isn't clear.

On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised when JLK at Pieces of Me pointed out what a great job the LA Times did with headlining the truth.


"Diet soda and heart, stroke risk: A link doesn't prove cause and effect"

That is the way to do it.  Nice job LA Times!

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I agree that the headlines you highlight are all problematic, especially given the ambiguous meaning of the word "linked." CBS and newser look like they're intentionally sensationalizing it; either that or they don't understand science very well.

Having said that... print publications are often dealing with extreme restrictions in headline length, and generally speaking, they simply put their print versions online without changes because they lack the manpower to tailor the online version to the medium.

As an example, let's take the USA Today headline, "Study: Diet soda linked to heart risks." The rules outlined at this link explain how I'm counting:

That headline is 34.5 units long. So let's be generous and say that the layout editor required something that was at most 36 units long. Can you come up with something 36 units long that is informative yet accurate? I haven't tried, so I'm not saying that it can't be done. I just thought it was worth pointing out (in case you didn't know -- perhaps you already do!) the constraints under which even the well-meaning and knowledgeable newspaper journalist works.

Personally, I think the real problem is that this story is being reported at all. Medical research is over-reported, which leads to intermediary findings receiving publicity, which leads in turn to people perceiving medical research as a body of contradictory findings, which leads to a loss of confidence in science as a whole.

Lab Mom
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Sure I see your point, but the phrase "Is anything safe to drink?" Really? How exactly is that necessary in the headline for this story.  With even less words you can be a lot more clear that it isn't a PROVEN risk.

How about:

"Diet Soda: A potential heart risk" or

"Diet Soda may increase stroke risk (early study finds)"

"Stoke Risks and Diet Soda: A possible link"

"Early investigation of Diet Soda and Heart Risks"

Simple words like POSSIBLE, POTENTIAL and MAY help moderate the headline.  The black and white "link" or "tied to" is what I dislike.


That being said,  I totally agree with your final point.  I agree it never should have been reported in the first place.  Double edged sword I suppose.  Scientists are encouraged to make their work relatable.  The media is a great way to generate interest and support for research, but it needs to be reported in a responsible way (both by the investigator and by the science writers).

Scientists are criticized for being inaccessible and not making advances fast enough. The problem comes when small advances are blown out of proportion in the name of a good story.

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