Sensational science sells stories

daily mail

Headlines catch attention and sell newspapers. Anyone who has looked at a newsstand or flicked past the news will have at some point been compelled by an intriguing, amazing or alarming headline to buy a paper, watch the news or click a link.

In October Rachel Kerr, a content writer from the BBC news website, talked about her experiences in journalism. One anecdote she gave was from when she first began writing for the BBC – having written for a tabloid newspaper previously she had had to adjust to the less sensationalist nature of the BBC.

She was told to change the wording of an article from ‘murdered in cold blood’ to something less sensational and biased such as ‘murdered’. The latter example, of course, is allowing the reader room to read facts and form their own opinions, irrespective of the view of the author. The former example, however naturally grabs more attention and so is more likely to sell newspapers or increase viewer figures – a much more important factor for a business such as a news company. For this reason, and without legislation to prohibit it, sensationalist reporting does and will continue to permeate the media.

The relatively factual world of science is sadly no exception, and is sensationalised fairly frequently. Sometimes this is even at the expense of people’s health; as with the MMR vaccine and now possibly also with IVF mitochondrial transplant.

Is more profit worth the costs of these lives?

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