A good story about medical studies begins with a responsible headline

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: Sergio Santos via Flickr

Many journalists have little to do with the final headline that ends up on their story, while others — such as bloggers and regular contributors to certain publications — are almost exclusively responsible for their headlines.

But even in the first case, journalists may submit a working headline with their story and often have some sway over the final headline. (I once requested my byline be removed from a story if the headline wasn’t changed to more respectful, accurate terminology.)

It’s no secret that many people will read nothing past the headline of a story. The implications of this are even more important with the increasing influence of social media, when readers might scroll past a dozen headlines in less than a minute while skimming their Facebook or Twitter feeds. In a largely click-based economy, the temptation to exploit that opportunity to get them to open an article is greater than ever.

So it’s also more important, especially in this era of “fake news” and a daily glut of health advice supposedly derived from research, to ensure that the headlines accompanying your story are accurate and responsible. The low-hanging fruit here is to avoid sensational terms—especially “cure,” “miracle,” “breakthrough,” “promising,” “dramatic,” “hope” and “victim,” as HealthNewsReview.org founder Gary Schwitzer wrote nearly two decades ago. But a study a few years ago revealed that sensationalism-creep already infects research abstracts, potentially making it harder for journalists to tone down the hype.

Therefore, it helps to have some guidelines when writing headlines that must accurately capture the essence of a story while also advertising it and inviting a reader to read the whole thing. A helpful tip sheet on headline writing from HealthNewsReview does exactly that, providing suggestions for writing solid headlines without falling into the sensationalism trap.

The first tip highlights a pitfall I frequently see (and must guard myself against committing the most!) — implying causality when a study only shows an association. Using expressions like “is associated with” or “is linked to” may seem wordier than “caused” or “led to,” so the temptation to shorten is magnified. However, given that correlation and causation are already widely confused, it’s essential not to let your headline make this mistake, even if the article itself doesn’t.

Other tips likely will be familiar or even obvious, yet we see them all the time (and sometimes must catch ourselves from writing). They address using “may” or “might” in headlines, being wary of news release headlines, backing up ambitious claims and (perhaps the hardest to avoid) not turning a headline into a question.

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