In Print: Prince Harry Turns into a Doll and Other Misleading Headlines


Read all about it: Misleading headlines can even plague presidential elections. Credit: Byron Rollins/AP/Wikipedia

The Newscripts blog would like to be closer Internet buddies with our glossy print Newscripts column, so here we highlight what’s going on in the print issue of C&EN. There's an unfortunate trend that seems to be becoming increasingly popular in today's science news world. The recipe goes like this: Take one misleading headline, add an introductory sentence that takes liberties with the subject matter it's covering, and stir in one gullible blogosphere, and before you know it, you have a distorted science news story that appears to be popping up everywhere. That's the controversy that C&EN Senior Editor Carmen Drahl took on in last week's Newscripts column. Carmen stumbled upon a press release purporting to have found a way to analyze human health through the measurement of genetic material. She called bullocks on the claim, and the journal responsible for the press release apologized. According to Carmen, this incident is nothing new. She says National Geographic blogger Ed Yong and many others have been leading a battle against misleading public relations for years. She also remembers stumbling across two particularly dubious "news stories" herself. One centered on the ENCODE (ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements) Project. As Carmen remembers, the project's attempts to catalog the pieces that make up the genome led to press releases that claimed so-called junk DNA served a life function, which in turn led to a barrage of articles both deriding the articles as hype and asking for clarification on what constitutes as "junk." The second "news story" centered on the 2010 claim that a bacterium had somehow replaced phosphorus in its DNA backbone with arsenic. "I can tell you the effect this second release had on me—lots of sleepless hours covering the backlash to what became known as #arseniclife," Carmen says. "Misleading news releases, and the misleading reportage that often goes hand in hand with them, are bad for science," she continues. "With oversimplification or omitted information, readers and viewers (whether they're fellow scientists or laypeople) never hear about the real reasons why scientists are excited about findingsthe beauty and importance are often in the details." As Carmen puts it, misinformation can lead to "science whiplash," where readers are left oscillating between two debatable claims with no resolution. Think of the endless debate about whether red wine is good for you, she says. "That's the kind of thing that breaks down people's trust in science in general." For the second part of her column, Carmen focuses on the lighter subject of Prince Harry's recent visit to the U.S. and the three-dimensional printed doll he received during his travels. To celebrate the royal visit, Carmen says she busted out "a proper cup of tea" that she brewed using the teamaker she bought in London last year. And Carmen's Newscripts connection with British royalty doesn't stop there. She is already looking for ways to incorporate the new royal baby into her next Newscripts column. "Maybe Harry will give his little niece or nephew the 3-D printed doll as a gift," she wonders.

Author: Jeff Huber

Jeff Huber is an associate editor at C&EN. He enjoys finding peculiar news stories that make him laugh and/or tilt his head in a thoughtful manner. This hobby has served him well as a contributor to the Newscripts blog.

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