Clickbait, modern media, and bad science journalism


I’m sure you’ve seen it.  The article that really set your teeth on edge with its overblown interpretation of a single study.  The headline that takes the proud words of a scientist describing their life’s work and turns them into a universal declaration.   Stories like this are not merely an annoyance to scientists and the scientific literate; they also do a disservice to the lay public, who just want some confirmation that, for example, drinking wine every night with dinner will cure cancer and guarantee they see their 100th birthday (not a study, don’t google it) but don’t want to take the time to read a dry-as-dust peer-reviewed paper – which is probably behind a paywall in any case.  And they shouldn’t have to find and read that paper, because the role of the science journalist should be to try and explain a ground-breaking study in the simplest way, to the broadest audience, while making the result meaningful to as many people as possible.

The best science articles draw people in with a story, something that is relatable and highlights the importance of the research, but also gives it a life in the readers’ minds.  These articles should give people something to talk about, and more importantly, something to think about.  But the nature of the press has changed rapidly with the decline of print news sources and the rise of digital media.  Back in ye olden days, revenue was generated with the purchase of an entire edition of a paper, journal, or magazine.  All you needed was that one screaming headline or cover story, and the rest would take care of itself.  Now, revenue is generated in terms of clicks – or the number of visits to a news site.  This means every single story has the potential to bring in more readers, and every single story needs to have something evocative about it – usually the headline or accompanying summary.  Even articles on clickbait sometimes have clickbait titles.

Human beings are very good at taking in a lot of information and then disseminating it to others – it’s what we do every day; even the dullest of us is a champion at it.  As a species, it’s our niche.  The internet is particularly well-suited to our desire to learn and redistribute; we all have our list of news sites we go to on a regular basis, we all skim through the headlines, reading only the stories we find interesting.  Usually that means reading the first paragraph and then skimming, unless the story is evocative enough or detailed enough to hold our attention.

Which is where the problem comes in.  Time and time again I have seen the same pattern in science articles: the headline is punchy, designed to draw in readers (click); the first couple of paragraphs describe the study (Dr. Formalwear from Yale found that wearing button-up shirts increases your sex drive!); and then, if you have the time and the interest, around two-thirds of the way into the article you get the other experts weighing in.  They might say the exact opposite, or offer important criticism of the study (Dr. Socksandsandels from Berkeley cautions that the research did not include people from the west coast), but by this time most of us have seen another article in the scrolling sidebar that we are interested in…and we’re now reading an article about puppies.

Puppies Cause Cancer, Study Finds
Puppies Cause Cancer, Study Finds

Here’s the thing – that conflict, the question of whether or not the study leads appropriately to the conclusions claimed by its author, that should be up front, not buried at the bottom of the article.  This is a big part of science; no study gets to stand on its own, it always has an addendum of past and concurrent research on the same topic, some of which might not be in agreement.  The best way to find this out is to talk to other scientists in the field, all of whom will have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the recent and past research on the topic.  To be fair, all science journalists know this and will include at least one other reference when reporting on recent results.  However, this input is sometimes buried, maybe because part of writing a good story is to bring your audience in quickly and keep them there; opening with “well, this might be significant but there is some debate” may seem like a wet-blanket way to start your article.  That is part of the challenge, and one I believe all science communicators need to master.  There are ways of doing it evocatively; in fact, taking a potential conflict or controversy and placing it up front could be an even bigger draw into the story, and it provides a nice way of keeping the inherently debatable nature of science in the readers minds as they read the most recent results (see this study for a great example of this type of opener).   The best science communicators know how to open a story and keep the interest of the audience without relying on placing the take-home message of one study up front; what we need is for this to be a standard that all major news sites follow in publishing new science.

Yeah, it's true - GMO bantha meat totally effects your aim
Yeah, I only eat non-GMO bantha steak after that new study

Drop the clickbait.  Science reporting represents a way of spreading the benefits of difficult and painstaking scientific investigation to everyone.  Honor the challenge of human learning represented in science, and the rewards are something everyone will benefit from.