April 4 2013
Warning! Headline Writers are Bad for Mental Health!
Carrie L. Lukas
“Breaking: Researchers find that this product won’t impact your health one way or the other!”
Not much of a show-stopper is it? Most people probably wouldn’t be tempted to click through and learn what product someone spent time and money studying before coming up with such a ho-hum conclusion. That’s why one rarely sees such headlines.
The headline writer’s job is to get an audience by finding the nugget in a story that is interesting enough to grab attention. They want something sexy, something alarming, something that will make you forward the story to your friends so traffic will spike and ratings will soar. Headline writers aren’t big on subtlety or nuance.
Anyone who has written for a publication knows this. Editors tend to check with authors about meaningful edits to the body of any piece they submit, but headlines are another story. The titles writers offer at the top of their pieces are commonly chucked. The article is turned over to the experts to craft a headline that is related to the article’s topic, but most importantly that will cut through the clutter and attract attention. Most writers will tell you of having been surprised by the headlines they’ve found at the top of their work.
Those writing reports or releasing research know how to take advantage of this. They know that it’s the most dramatic claims that they make in their studies — not the disclaimers, the caveats, the nuance — that will be seized on by the media and headline writers, and ultimately will attract attention. They feel confident they can back-pedal once the cameras are on them.
The recent headlines about the impact of salt on worldwide health are just the latest example of this dynamic. “Salt Linked to 1 in 10 US Deaths,” said NBC News; “Study: Too Much Salt Linked to 2.3 Million Yearly Deaths Worldwide,” wrote CBS News; and “Salt Overconsumption Kills Millions,” according to Christian Broadcast Network. It could hardly be more inflammatory: The picture painted by the media is that seemingly healthy Americans are dropping like flies because of the salt in their food. Indeed, salt’s body count is bigger than Stalin’s, Hitler’s, or Mao’s — millions and millions unnecessarily dead every year.
But is that really what this study found? First, reading a bit deeper into the articles we learn that the study, which is considered by its authors as “preliminary,” hasn’t been peer-reviewed or published yet. Furthermore, some experts are questioning the study’s design. Dr. Steven Nissen, the chair of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, explained the process being used to attribute all these deaths to the over-consumption of salt: “They’re trying to extrapolate millions of deaths based upon salt intake, but it’s not based upon any data on mortality and salt. … It’s also based on an extrapolation of the effect of sodium on blood pressure, which is a very big reach, and not a reliable estimate of the burdens of salt.”
Indeed, while it didn’t make similar blaring headlines, other recent research (see Scientific American for more on these studies) calls into question the link between salt intake and heart disease and high blood pressure. These studies suggest that reducing salt intake may only be helpful for a small subsection of the population.
Such inflammatory coverage of health issues may be good for the news business, but it certainly isn’t the best way to encourage Americans to eat and live healthier. Fixating on bringing salt levels down dramatically is likely an unnecessary as well as unrealistic goal for most Americans. As Americans turn their attention to monitoring sodium intake, they are likely to shift away from equally important measures of a healthy diet and lifestyle. Worse, studies hyped in the media are often used as pretexts to push government regulations. Such regulations are unlikely to make Americans healthier, but will succeed in driving up costs and making food taste worse.
Alarmist headlines like the recent “salt-as-mass-murderer” outbreak should be taken with a big grain of salt. The research on how too much (or too little) salt affects individuals’ health is far from settled. Here is what we do know: Common sense tells us that eating a balanced diet, with plenty of protein, fruits and veggies, while exercising moderately is the best way to go. Just don’t expect that to make any headlines.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum.