Don’t Always Believe Flashy Headlines

Nonsense Writ Small

As a trained science journalist, I know that headline writers don’t have a lot of room to encapsulate a story into a very few words.  Complex stories suffer from this most — particularly science stories. Add to that a headline writer’s propensity to have — um… “fun” with a headline and you get some pretty silly results.  Still, that doesn’t excuse the spate of headlines claiming that life has been found on Mars (when, in fact, it’s METHANE that has been found on Mars), or that scientists are “baffled” by lights in the sky, as in “Scientists left baffled as mysterious columns of coloured light appear in the night skies” (as reported in a tweeted link by my friend Daniel Fischer.  I’ve checked out the stories behind the silly headlines and lo, and behold, there’s NO life found on Mars and scientists HAVE figured out what’s causing some beautiful sky pillars to appear in areas where sunlight is glinting off of atmospheric ice crystals.

The best headlines about the methane on Mars take into account the idea that methane “could” signal the existence of life on Mars, and the accompanying stories bring up the fact that methane is caused by both geological AND living organisms.  But, the worst ones are just breathless and misleading.  Some headlines and stories try to be cute (Mars, the “farty” planet), which is okay if the cuteness isn’t terminal.

The lesson here?  Don’t believe headlines. Read stories in full and don’t believe it when a journalist wimps out and doesn’t do his/her job in a headline or story.  There’s always more than meets the eye in any story (not just the science ones) and you deserve the whole story, not just what somebody thinks sounds or looks “cute” in a headline or story.

Here’s a challenge: go to a number of news sites (CNN, the BEEB, etc.) and read the headlines on science stories (political stories are good for this, too). Then, read the stories and see how much they either support or divert away from the full story.  It’s a good critical thinking exercise.

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  1. I refer you to today’s Significant Snail.

    Comment by Mom — January 18, 2009 #

  2. Well sure, but that’s an opinion blog, not a news source… ;)

    I must admit, I like her theory though. ;)

    Comment by ccp — January 18, 2009 #

  3. [...] Other bloggers noticed the media nonsense too, including my friends and colleagues Dave Mosher and Carolyn Collins Petersen. [...]

    Pingback by Mars methane media mess | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine — January 19, 2009 #

  4. [...] that we’ve got proof-positive of life on the Red Planet. But I think Carol Collins Petersen raises an important point: it’s the headlines that were truly noxious. If you stripped the headlines [...]

    Pingback by Bad Astronomy on Bad Mars Reporting (Or Just Bad Mars Headlines)? | The Loom | Discover Magazine — January 19, 2009 #

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