Third IAEA mission to review Japan’s plans and work to decommission the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. February 2015, Tokyo, Japan

Bait and Switch: Headlines and Science Stories

This month marks five years since an earthquake and tsunami led to a disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. A question in public health specialists’ minds back then — and even now — was whether the disaster would lead to increased rates of thyroid cancers in children living nearby, and a story published in Science magazine earlier this month seemed to provide an answer: “Mystery cancers are cropping up in children in aftermath of Fukushima,” the article’s headline declared.

Third IAEA mission to review Japan's plans and work to decommission the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. February 2015, Tokyo, Japan

Third IAEA mission to review Japan’s plans and work to decommission the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. February 2015, Tokyo, Japan

It was a compelling implication, but as the article eventually makes clear, what’s been “cropping up” in Japanese children — thyroid abnormalities, including nodes, cysts and cancer — might also be a result of increased screening. Researchers, the article noted, replicated the screening protocol in areas far from the fallout, and they found similar numbers of growths. And Dillwyn Williams, a University of Cambridge thyroid cancer specialist, was quoted as saying that the evidence suggested thyroid growths among children were far more common than previously thought and, as such, ought to be considered normal.

The Fukushima survey might simply provide “a better understanding of the origins and development” of thyroid growths wherever they occur, the article concluded — and possibly lead to better treatment protocols.

So was a headline evoking “mystery cancers” and the “aftermath of Fukushima” misleading? Science news editor Tim Appenzeller doesn’t think so.

“We think the ‘mystery cancers’ headline is supported by the story, which stresses that the mass thyroid screening has turned up a mystery,” Appenzeller said in an email message. “I can see that the headline might be misread as suggesting the cancers were caused by the accident, though it does not say that. But we certainly did not write a misleading headline to attract clicks.”

Some readers who commented on the article weren’t quite so convinced. “My only complaint is with the title, which seems to suggest that the ‘mystery cancers’ are due to the meltdowns,” wrote one reader. Another called it a “horrible clickbait headline.”

It’s worth noting that while the story online bore the ‘mystery cancers’ headline, its twin in print, in the March 4 issue of Science, was titled “Epidemic of fear.” Same content, different headline.

It’s common practice to have different headlines in print and online. A print headline has the benefit of being part of a package deal – a head, a subheading or “dek” as it’s sometimes called, and a prominent photo — all helping to tell the story at a glance. In contrast, an online headline often has to do all the work on its own to capture a high position in search engine results, and to grab Internet readers’ fleeting, and often fickle attention.

Appenzeller suggested the print headline was simply too opaque for online distribution.

“’Epidemic of fear’ worked well as a headline in print, where it was helped by the dek and other display type. But we thought it was too mysterious for online, so the editors here came up with a more explicit alternative,” he said. Still, Dillwyn Williams, the Cambridge radiation-cancer expert cited in the story, said in an email message: “I would not condemn the headlines, but I do not agree with the implications.”

He added that the findings of the research underscore “the need for long-term studies of the health effects of major nuclear accidents.”

Gary Schwitzer, the publisher of the health news watchdog site Health News Review, said he was not particularly bothered by the “mystery cancer” headline, and he pointed to what he considered more egregious cases of headline abuse. One involved multiple headlines suggesting that U.S. breast cancer rates would rise 50 per cent by 2030. Buried deeper down in many of the more alarmingly-titled pieces, however, was the caveat that defining some breast abnormalities as cancer was controversial.

Another critique took aim at a Washington Post headline that read “Zoloft as Ebola cure? NIH researchers see promise in drugs already on the market.” The article mentioned later that researchers were testing the drug in mice and that a lot of results that seem promising in the animal models do not hold up in humans.

“On the spectrum of great-to-misleading headlines,” Schwitzer said of the recent Science magazine headline, “this one doesn’t concern me all that much.”

Kathlyn Stone, and independent health journalist and a reviewer for Health News Review generally agreed with Schwitzer, but added that the Science piece may have been “a little misleading for its use of the word ‘mystery cancers.’”

“The story itself seems to be in line with many I’ve seen recently that quote researchers who believe that the uptick in thyroid cancers in children who lived close to the Fukushima plant is attributable to extensive screening,” Stone said in an email. “So it’s not so much a mystery as a disagreement among experts about the thyroid cancer incidence.”

Also not a mystery: The idea that accuracy in headline writing, particularly as they relate to issues of science and health, are more important than ever in the age of social media. After all, gathering evidence suggests that in a world of Twitter and Facebook sharing, few people ever read further than the headline.