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Monday, November 8, 2010

How to Write a Science Headline

From the “Department of Sarcastic Yet Horrifyingly Accurate Form Letters”:

Dear (Headline Writer),

As I’m sure you’re aware, (news organization) has recently made deep funding cuts in our science department.  In an effort to stave off bankruptcy, we’ve eliminated as many positions as possible that require employees with specialized education or knowledge.  (Parent company) is confident that with a few minor tweaks to our operating procedures, we can transition into a less perspective-based science format with minimal detriment to our readership.

Now that science has been merged with (unrelated department), I’m sure you have concerns stemming from the fact that you are completely unqualified to do the job you are now being asked to do.  To aid you in this new undertaking, we’ve developed a few standardized procedures to put into place when formulating a science-related headline.

#1) Our Readers Don’t Care About Accuracy

Our readers aren’t going to follow up on any of these stories.  Heck, they probably won’t even read the whole article.  When we present research about a potential medical treatment, nobody expects to ever see that treatment implemented.  The only thing that matters is that the headline is not demonstrably false.  This can easily be accomplished by always remembering rule number two.

#2) Always Include a Question Mark

The headline does not even need to be in interrogative form, you just need to add the question mark.  The headline “Miracle Drug Discovered” could come back to bite us, but the headline “Miracle Drug Discovered?” is always technically accurate.  The beauty of phrasing headlines as questions is that the answer to the question can (and always will) be no.  It allows you to tantalize the reader with something science is wholly unable to deliver without blatantly lying to them.

#3) There are no Incremental Advancements

Our readers aren’t interested in the slow and steady increase in human knowledge and understanding.  In the news world, there are only breakthroughs.  Breakthroughs occur in three levels of intensity: Unexpected, Promising and Miracle.  Whenever possible, the word “breakthrough” should be preceded by one of these three quantifiers.

#4) Focus on the Least Likely Application

When crafting a headline, you need only read enough of the article to garner a vague understanding of the research being described.  Once you know that, you can simply extrapolate what the most sensational and unlikely outcome of the research could possibly be.  If geneticists are looking for ways to make spiders spin stronger webs, why not promise this power to our readers?

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Even with these guidelines, you will still encounter stories that are too complicated to craft an easy sensational headline around.  When in doubt, determine (or guess) what the actual field of science being discussed in the article is and simply refer to this handy list of go-to headlines:

Archaeology – Evidence of (Place/Thing that never existed)?

It really doesn’t matter what was discovered or where.  A vaguely geometric arrangement of rocks in a landlocked desert could qualify for the headline, “Evidence of Atlantis?”  The answer to the question was going to be no one way or the other. 

Astronomy – Life on (Place there is definitely no life)?

The discovery of a new astronomical body should always be followed up by the question of whether or not it could support life.  It doesn’t matter if the subject is the discovery of a new white dwarf, a globular cluster or a comet.  Always start by asking if there is life on it.

Biology – Was Darwin Wrong?

This one just sells papers.  It doesn’t matter that the entire field of molecular genetics was presaged by his work or that countless fossils have been discovered since his death, all of which support the theory upon which the entire field of modern biology rests.  Unjustly calling a brilliant scientist into question always makes a good headline.

Chemistry – Scientists Baffled

This is one of only two acceptable headlines to use without a question mark.  The fact that some scientist out there somewhere is always baffled about something insulates (Parent company) from any litigation rising from the accuracy of this headline.  This headline can be employed any time you are personally baffled by the research in question and a scientist is unable to dumb it down enough for simple digestion.

Genetics – Ethical Concerns Raised by New Research
This is the other acceptable headline to use without a question mark.  In the field of genetics, it really doesn’t matter how benign the research is.  Somebody is pissed off about it.

Geology – Was the Bible Right?

If geologists unearth evidence of a massive flood, it could have been the biblical deluge.  If they find remains of wood anywhere more than 20,000 feet above sea level it could be Noah’s ark.  If they find a salt lick anywhere in the Middle East, it could be Lot’s wife.  Remember, even research in the six continents not mentioned in the bible can be morphed to have vague biblical application if you’re trying hard enough.

Immunology – Cure for Cancer?

Who cares that there are over 200 types of cancer and that even the most ephemeral understanding of immunology suggests that there will never be one single cure for cancer?  People don’t want to hear depressing news.  They want promises that cannot be delivered.

Medical Science (established procedure) – Is (Procedure) Safe?

The safer and more established this procedure is, the more appropriate the headline.  It doesn’t matter if the research demonstrated or even suggested an increased risk.  Heck, it doesn’t even matter if the researchers were looking into safety.  If they were looking at stethoscope use on any level, the headline should read “Are Stethoscopes Safe?”

Medical Science (new procedure) – Miracle Breakthrough?

If it is old it is dangerous, if it is new it is miraculous.  Remember, the miraculousness of a new treatment is limited only by your ability to exaggerate it.  Also keep in mind that the definition of a “new” procedure is pretty broad for our purposes.  Anything that was discovered in the last ten years can be presented as completely revolutionary for the purposes of the news cycle.

Paleontology – Missing Link Found?

The expectations surrounding the “missing link” are cultivated through a profound misunderstanding of science and evolutionary biology to begin with.  There is no single “missing link”, but rather hundreds or even thousands of gradual differentiations that lead from one species to another.  Every fossil of an as of yet unidentified species is a missing link to something.

Physics – Was Einstein Wrong?

Cutting edge physics is pretty abstract and confusing to begin with.  Any mention of things like the Higgs Boson particle or dark matter should already be heavily laden with misleading analogies.  Extrapolating a headline from such a morass can be intimidating.  If the “Scientists Baffled” standby seems more grossly inappropriate than usual, feel free to call one of the greatest theoretical minds the world has ever known into question.

Psychology – Your Children at Risk?

In the news business, paranoia is our most valuable asset and there’s no type of paranoia like parent-noia™.  For our purposes, the entire field of psychology exists to further conflate the labyrinth of potentially devastating pitfalls that comprise child rearing.  Your value as a headline writer will often be determined by your ability to attach dangers to research on the only the thinnest shreds of actual relation.

Virology – Cure for the Common Cold?

There will never be a cure for the common cold.  There are over 200 viruses that cause it and it is a relatively minor irritant compared with the hundreds of other viral infections more deserving of our attention.  This means that no matter how far the field of virology advances we will always be able to use this headline.

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These headlines should guide you through almost every science-related article that comes across your desk.  If the article does not relate easily to one of the fields of study described above it is probably too scientific for our (medium) anyway.



PS Now get back to work.  We’re not paying you to read memos.

Aaron Davies

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