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They say the pen is mightier than the sword … and I do agree that it packs a powerful punch. “With great power comes great responsibility,” and this is so true of writers. Our words are powerful — especially when they appear in headlines. They inspire, inform and change opinions. And, when a writer is not careful about his or her word choice, problems can ensue.
For example, in late March, reporters wrote about a study led by researchers at Cornell University. Headlines included “The vegetarian gene: a plant-based diet causes lasting genetic mutations that could increase cancer risk” from The Telegraph and “Long term vegetarian diet changes human DNA raising risk of cancer and heart disease” from Medical Daily.
The problem is those headlines are inaccurate and create confusion for the readers. The words are misleading. As reported in Vice, a co-author of the study was humiliated by these headlines and wanted to set the record straight. He told Vice that the study found an allele in some populations whose ancestors ate a primarily vegetarian diet. Evolution enabled people with this allele to produce their own synthetic versions of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, which vegetarian and vegan diets can sometimes lack.
In other words, a vegetarian diet doesn’t change a person’s DNA. A person’s DNA changes how that person reacts to certain diets.
The study postulated that those with that allele may be better off sticking with a vegetarian diet, so they didn’t get too much of these fatty acids, which could cause inflammation. However, someone reading article headlines like those mentioned above may believe that switching to a vegetarian diet could change their DNA and make them more prone to cancer.
Can you imagine how a person who believes a vegetarian diet can make them more cancer-prone is going to think about another story with headlines like “Eradicating meat from diet may add years to life: Study” from The Nation, which appeared in early May?
Contradicting — and sometimes inaccurate — headlines not only confuse people about the information provided, but give science itself a bad wrap! Many people don’t actually read the articles attached to headlines and make assumptions (and decisions) based on headlines alone. Some people might even draw the conclusion that scientists don’t know what they’re talking about and then decide not to pay attention to information that could help them live a better life.
John Oliver highlighted this confusion from media reporting of studies in a broadcast of his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.” He noted how the media often negates to report whether or not the study was done on human or animal subjects, the number of subjects involved in the study, and who funded the study. With so much misinformation out there, the general public becomes more confused about what is healthy and what should be avoided.
So, if you are a writer who covers science, I implore you to report on study results responsibly and eschew sexy but misleading headlines.