What’s in a headline?

Some readers may have noticed that this topic came up on my Twitter feed. I thought I could try what the editors at Nature Chemistry did, and write an editorial in 42 tweets. But I did such a terrible job that I figured it was best to flesh out my thoughts here.

Two science news headlines caught my eye today. Truthfully, many more than two did, but these in particular generated some irritation on my behalf.

1. Beetles to blame for Colorado’s fires? Blame climate change instead

This one is from ‘Science on NBC News’, written by Alan Boyle. The article itself is really interesting and contains a lot of relevant – and accurate – information. But the headline – as well as a short paragraph within the text – suggests that scientists have been at odds as to whether the extensive wildfires across Colorado are a result of EITHER climate change OR beetle infestation.

This is not an either/or situation, but a logical connection. While there has been some discussion as to whether or not beetle-killed forests are more susceptible to wildfire (which is well addressed in the article itself), there is agreement that BOTH beetle infestation AND wildfire are closely tied to climate change.

Thus the headline generates questions where there are, actually, none. A more accurate – but less scintillating – headline would be: Climate change to blame for Colorado’s beetle infestation and wildfires.

2. Satellite data hinted at Alberta floods weeks ago

This is a Globe and Mail article, written by Ivan Semeniuk. Like the previous article, it’s super interesting with great information and ideas. It outlines a study published by Jay Famiglietti, who just happens to be in Canada for the Munk School of Global Affairs Program on Water Issues Groundwater panel (note this panel has no women members, which is a post for another day).

Famiglietti used data from the GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellite mission to determine areas of the US where groundwater storage was declining (southwest US) and areas where it was increasing (Missouri River region). This and other work coming out of the GRACE mission is amazingly useful, particularly in the context of groundwater, and it’s fantastic to see mainstream news media covering the technology and the hydrological insights it can provide.

However, the headline suggests that scientists and/or policy makers were in possession of information weeks ago that could have told them that the massive floods in Alberta were imminent. Thing is, Famiglietti’s study objective was to answer questions about the States, and his published paper includes figures that cover ONLY the US. While he indicates that he does have data from Alberta showing increasing groundwater levels, these data were not published – and presumably were not made available to Alberta flood experts, hydrologists, or other scientists.

In hindsight, the data would have been useful. But in real time? They weren’t available.

Add to that the fact that groundwater alone was not the sole driver of these floods. Even had we known about the increased groundwater levels, we didn’t know about the storm that caused the flooding – more specifically the fact that it would be stalled over the province dumping huge amounts of rain – until just prior to the event. For more details see my previous blog post.

So there was no hint of flooding weeks ago: (a) because we didn’t have the data, and (b) because the flood was driven by additional factors on top of a high groundwater table. A more accurate headline could be: Satellite data will be useful in predicting future Alberta floods

End of rant

It’s refreshing to read well-written and well-researched articles on topics within my research field, that include accurate information and have an engaging style. But it’s the headlines that people see first – so they should mirror what’s in the article. I’m well aware that it’s usually editors who generate headlines, not writers themselves. Maybe it’s time for editors to take a science communication course of their own to ensure the headline supports the great writing within the article, rather than undermining it.

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3 thoughts on “What’s in a headline?

  1. You’re right that writers (such as myself) don’t always have the final say in what the headline turns out to be, but in this case I think I get the sense of it… When regular folks (not scientists) read about tinder-dry, beetle-killed trees being consumed by wildfires, they might tend to focus on the beetles … and they may well ask whether the fires are an outgrowth (heh, heh) of the beetle outbreak. In fact, that’s a key questions posed in the studies that have been done: Does beetle damage make crown fires more or less likely? (It was also the question that led my editors to assign me to this particular story.) What I tried to do in the story was to shift that question to the broader issue of climate’s role in both phenomena (because that’s where Jesse and the other sources were leading me). The headline’s aim was not so much to suggest that scientists were at odds, but to suggest that for at least some people (including my editors, and even me), the initial perception can be at odds with the more complex reality.

    • Thanks for reading this post, Alan – and taking time to leave a comment. Your perspective as the article author is helpful in understanding the headline choice.

      I see what you were getting at – that most people automatically associate fire with beetle, rather than linking both to climate change. I guess working in this field I the complete backstory, and from that perspective the headline seemed to suggest that scientists weren’t sure about fire/beetle/climate change linkages.

      You’ve definitely given me something to think about. Particularly that headline selection is just as important as the article itself!

  2. Pingback: Link Roundup: Bad headlines, social media for academics, women in science, and the 8th Conference of the Science Journalists | Science, I Choose You!

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