Pointless CNN piece hypes the health effects of being left-handed

left-handed writting the text I am left-handedThe following guest post is by Matt Shipman, a public information officer at North Carolina State University and frequent story and news release reviewer for the site. He writes the Communication Breakdown blog for Scilogs.com and is author of Handbook for Science Public Information Officers (University of Chicago Press, 2015). This is his first of what we hope will be many contributions to the blog.

Does being left-handed affect your health? According to a recent headline published on CNN.com, the answer is an emphatic yes. In fact, based on that headline – “20 ways being left-handed impacts your health” – readers may well assume that being left-handed affects many aspects of your health. But blanket statements like that one are problematic.

For years, health reporting has come under fire for being confusing. This may largely be due to news stories that go back and forth on a given topic – “Coffee is good for you!” followed shortly by “Coffee is bad for you!” But, as journalist Virginia Hughes wrote in 2014, “The reason the stories contradict each other is because the studies contradict each other.”

That quote stems from a larger piece on the importance of providing context in news stories, to help readers make sense of the larger research picture when it comes to human health. Hughes’s feature came on the heels of pieces in JAMA Internal Medicine (by HealthNewsReview.org founder Gary Schwitzer) and PLOS ONE that also found fault with how some health news stories are presented to the public. I wrote about all three pieces at the time, and highlighted the fact that institutions and press officers also have a role to play in presenting health research findings in a responsible way.

But, while not ideal, it is understandable that reporters and editors may make mistakes when covering complex research findings and working on tight deadlines or with restricted word-counts.

Does that explain what’s going on with the story about left-handedness and health? Not really.

That’s because stories like the one published on CNN aren’t really news – they’re simply presented that way. And that’s the problem.

To be clear, I’m not singling out this particular story to be mean-spirited. However, I am singling it out as a good example of a problem that is currently widespread in outlets that claim to be sharing meaningful health news.

So, why is this not news?

Well, for one thing, there’s nothing new here. There is no “news hook” to explain why the story is being told now. That’s not necessarily a problem – there is real value in “explainer”-style pieces that help readers understand health issues. But this isn’t one of those either.

The story instead gives readers a list of anecdotes. Some of these are scary (“It’s linked to a higher risk of breast cancer”) and some of which don’t seem to be linked to health at all (“It doesn’t make you more creative”). But none of the anecdotes give readers any real information.

For example, if a left-handed woman became concerned after reading that left-handedness is “linked to a higher risk of breast cancer” (which would be a reasonable response), that reader may want to learn more. But the story – which is published online – doesn’t give readers the information they’d need to look the relevant study up, nor does it link to any additional information elsewhere. Ideally, the story would give readers some context about the size of the risk left-handers face, how the study was conducted, or its potential limitations. But it doesn’t do those things either.

In fact, it’s not clear why the story was written in the first place. As the story itself notes, in its final paragraph, left-handedness “doesn’t matter much at all” and “We shouldn’t assume much about people’s…health just because of the hand they write with.”

In 2009, Susan Dentzer – then editor-in-chief of Health Affairs and a long-time health correspondent for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer – wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that “that when journalists ignore complexities or fail to provide context, the public health messages they convey are inevitably inadequate or distorted.”

That’s part of what’s going on here.

But the other part is that the space in which people seek out health news is crowded, and competing for eyeballs is the name of the game. Stories like the left-handed one catch our attention and pop up in search results, but don’t actually leave readers any more informed. By devoting “health news” space to these stories, editors are crowding out fleshed-out stories that can help readers understand their health. And when reporters are tasked with writing articles like this one, that leaves them less time to write substantive pieces that offer readers real information about health. (And, to be clear, informative stories can also be fun and engaging.)

Is there space for online articles like this one? Sure. But it’s important to let readers know what they’re getting. And however entertaining the left-handedness story is, it’s not news. To make this clear to readers, perhaps it could have run on a different page. Or perhaps give it a headline like “20 Random Factoids About Being Left-Handed.”

In fact, this story started out with a headline much like that one. The story wasn’t written by CNN, and it first appeared in an online gallery at Health.com titled “20 Little-Known Facts About Being Left-Handed.” At first glance, that would seem to be a more innocuous and more appropriate headline than CNN’s. And while the story text is still problematic, at least the headline signals to readers that this is more about entertainment than communicating health news.

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Comments (2)

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Amanda MacMillan

November 9, 2015 at 8:35 am

As the author of this piece, I thank you for pointing out that it was indeed originally published with a different headline and in a slightly different context. I’d also like to point out that the original piece on Health.com does include links to the studies we referenced, including the breast cancer one you mention above. Freelancers like myself have little control over what happens to our content via syndication deals, and I’m certainly not always thrilled with where my stories end up or how they’re portrayed, with different headlines, images, etc. (Sometimes they’re published years later, even, when much of the reporting is outdated.) I had fun researching and writing about what I found to be a very interesting topic, and hopefully others will find it interesting (and not entirely “pointless”) as well. I did try to portray the studies and health associations accurately without being alarmist or exaggerating anything (hence the “it doesn’t matter much” conclusion), but I agree the story should not be headlined or promoted as important news.

Matt Shipman

November 9, 2015 at 9:51 am

Good point that the original version of the story included links to referenced studies — that’s important. I wish they’d included those when they re-ran the story on CNN.