Gone fishin’ Friday: Summer health news clickbait makes us want to throw back our catch

Carolina Branson, PhD is an associate editor with HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @BransonCarolina.

Facebook recently announced they were rolling out a new algorithm designed to detect and limit “clickbait” headlines from users’ news feeds. The social media giant defines clickbait as headlines that “omit crucial information” leading to a “misleading, sensational and spammy” experience for readers.

Little girl unhappy about losing a fish.

This had us wishing more news organizations would write their health headlines with this update in mind. From unsubstantiated claims about longevity, to headlines about diabetes risk that fail to deliver, a recent spate of late summer stories have made us click and then wince.

Clickbait example #1: Everyone should freak out right now because we’re all at risk

The first one that drew our attention was a story in Philly.com with the provocative headline, “Why even normal-weight people should be concerned about diabetes.” Was there some new breakthrough that meant all people–overweight and normal weight alike–should be worried about getting diabetes?

Nope, don’t race to your doctor just yet. The subsequent story was about a normal weight woman who had a family history of diabetes (genetic risk) and had subsequently developed gestational diabetes during pregnancy and, ultimately, type II diabetes. Having a genetic risk factor for diabetes is a well-established risk factor for developing diabetes, and the way the headline was written violated a cardinal clickbait rule: Don’t be misleading.

A more accurate headline could have read something like, “A family history of diabetes puts you at risk, regardless of your weight.”

The author of the column also discusses “prediabetes,” which is a term we’ve called into question numerous times, such as this post Half of Americans have diabetes or pre-diabetes? Really? What does that mean? and Idolatry of the surrogate: Overdiagnosis in diabetes. 

Clickbait example #2: Listicles that promise way more than they can deliver

The second offender, an attention-grabbing headline from Medical Daily: “8 Strange Hacks to Live Longer: Scientific Tips and Facts.” The headline certainly promises a lot: Scientific facts to hack our way to living longer? Sign us up!

Unfortunately, our hopes were dashed. As we read the list, we found a hodgepodge of tips predicated on observational studies (a relatively weak form of scientific evidence) that often conflicted with other highly publicized observational research. For example, one on the list–“Drink Beer and Coffee”–did not explain that the studies on alcohol and longevity are far from settled. Another, “Listen to your dentist,” claims that flossing can add 6.4 years to your life, a figure so specific and lacking in context we did a double-take–especially since the AP recently exposed that flossing’s medical benefits are unproven.

And the tip “Don’t retire to the South,” really ruffled our feathers–and not just because we dream of a sunny retirement in the Keys. The story says we should avoid the South because it has a higher mortality rate. This oversimplification leaves out the fact that the South has a larger number of overweight people, and higher rates of poverty, both major contributors to top causes of mortality, such as heart disease. Good news, if you’re tired of shivering and shoveling snow: These things have nothing to do with moving to the South from another place.

Clickbait example #3: Slapping a question mark on a headline

Finally, we turn to the Wall Street Journal’s story “The Harder you Bite, the Longer you Live?” This is a classic case of what we call “question-mark journalism,” meaning the story makes a claim without having to be held accountable for it (here’s another example we wrote about). So, what did we find when we clicked on this one? A study that followed 559 Japanese people over the course of 70 years that found that 37% of those men with the lowest bite strength died during the study period compared with 22% of the men with the lowest bite strength. The study results did not apply to the women in the group, and did not account for the participants’ eating habits, musculoskeletal strength or oral hygiene.

So what does this tell us about bite strength and longevity? Question mark, indeed.

Want to stop clickbaiting your readers?

We don’t know if Facebook’s new rules will help improve health news headlines, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed it will have some impact. In the meantime, our 5 tips for writing better health headlines, provide some solid guidelines so readers don’t embark on a clicking frenzy for stories that fail to follow-through.

Readers: Have any nominees for this list? Please submit via our comments:

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