Misleading Headlines Can Leave Lasting Impressions.
Hello Totally Wicked customers. For my newsletter contribution this month I wanted to share with you a conversation I had down at my local pub! I was watching a football match with friends and one of them was using his electronic cigarette. My other friend said to him, “they’re just as dangerous as smoking, didn’t you read the headlines last week!” I knew which headlines he was referring to, and unlike him, I had read the scientific paper they purported to represent. They know that I work in the vaping industry so it was left to me to explain to two slightly inebriated football fans that bad science often makes the newspaper headlines. Good science is buried deep in the journals and will not make the headlines as it doesn’t sell newspapers. One friend was convinced, the other still viewed my opinion with a degree of scepticism despite the fact he knows I’ve been a research scientist for years.
“They say your stuff (vaping) is as bad as smoking, is that true?”
I left the pub after the match and went to my parents to have Sunday lunch. Like most of you, I get asked how work is going on a regular basis by my Mum! I told her work was good and then my Dad said to me “they say your stuff (vaping) is as bad as smoking, is that true?” I had to explain again that it wasn’t true, in fact it was complete fiction but the headline had once again done its job on leaving a lasting impression. My Dad has never been a smoker, so vaping is of no interest to him. He wouldn’t have even read the newspaper article yet he was left with the impression that vaping was as dangerous as smoking simply by scanning the headlines.
It was a similar situation to the one I had found myself in a several months back. When the Public Health England report concluded that vaping was around 95% less harmful than tobacco I wasn’t asked about the validity of the report findings by my friends and family. Indeed, that report was barely mentioned in conversations I had about e-cigarettes. The topic discussed was based on the headline that e-cigarettes could be prescribed on the NHS, and the implications of that potential decision. Again, the headline had caught the attention of the public, the detail of the PHE report had been lost or at least buried on page 12 of the newspaper!
“E-cigarettes are safer than smoking, scientists warn” doesn’t have quite the same attention grabbing effect.
These conversations have made me consider the power newspaper headlines have in the formation of public opinion. The headline “e-cigarettes are no safer than smoking, scientists warn” was the source of my friend’s and family’s misguided view on the safety of e-cigarettes, compared to smoking which kills 1 out of every 2 long term users. The headline was based on an irresponsible quote from one of the scientists in a press release that accompanied the scientific paper. The study itself was fundamentally flawed due to the methodology used to compare the effect of e-liquid vapour and tobacco smoke on lung cells in the laboratory. If the researchers had applied logical methodology for their comparative harm study then negligible effect for e-cigarette vapour would have been reported. But this wouldn’t make eye catching headlines or indeed newspaper articles around the world. “E-cigarettes are safer than smoking, scientists warn” doesn’t have quite the same attention grabbing effect, I’m sure you’ll agree. Would I have had the same conversation with my friends in the pub if that headline had been published, of course not. But as I said before, good science is usually buried in the journals. Bad science often makes the headlines, and unfortunately those headlines have a major role to play in the formation of public opinion. We all know headlines are often misleading, but they can also have serious consequences on key issues such as public health.