Yes, a listicle: 10 times we couldn’t resist writing about health news clickbait

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher. He frequently reports on consumer drug issues and has authored and co-authored several books. He tweets as @AKECassels.

As a self-avowed beer snob, I would be the kind of audience that would surely be lured by the health clickbait proclaiming “Beer hops may protect against liver disease.

After all, when you find something that reinforces your questionable habits, how can you not click on it? That is the essence of clickbait–to write a headline that’s irresistible, with the goal of driving up page views and advertising money.

To understand what makes clickbait so tantalizing, Wired looked closely at the psychology of clickbait reporting in a 2015 paper called “Breaking the News: First Impressions Matter On Online News.”

Two researchers reviewed 69,907 headlines produced by four international media outlets in 2014. After analyzing the “sentiment polarity” of these headlines (whether the primary emotion conveyed was positive, negative, or neutral), they found “an extreme sentiment score obtained the largest mean popularity.”

Bypassing rational thinking and diving straight at emotion

Keep in mind that this is just one study that has plenty of potential limitations. Nonetheless, the findings are sure to provoke thought. The authors reported that strongly negative or strongly positive news is associated with more readership, and that “a headline has more chance to [receive clicks] if the sentiment expressed in its text is extreme, towards the positive or the negative side.”

And that’s one of the problems with clickbait, how it bypasses rational thinking and dives straight at emotion. Health news is a naturally life-or-death topic–Will X new drug save your life? Will coffee send you to an untimely demise?–that the polarity and resulting clickbait can be hard to avoid.

If you are clicking on articles that promise to reveal the true sex lives of celebrities or the secrets of how to be a guitar god, then go ahead. Be entertained. But, it’s time we demand a higher bar for medical or health-related stories, calling out clickbait-y headlines and their luring deceptive tricks, because, after all, we’re talking about our health.

As a recap to what we contributors and bloggers at HealthNewsReview.org have written on clickbait before, here’s a listicle (admittedly, another common clickbait tactic that we’re pretty fond of), with distillation of what clickbaiters are really selling.

Health news clickbait trends we’ve picked up on:

  1. Medicalization of beauty standards sells.  No body part is immune. Earlier this year JAMA Plastic Surgery published a study on the “most attractive” female lip sizes, and even put it under embargo, as if it was information that needed to be carefully handled before deadline. In a post by associate editor Jill U. Adams, ‘Are YOUR lips attractive?’ Clickbait science fuels clickbait journalism, Leonore Tiefer, a clinical psychotherapist at New York University, described it as a “fabulous example of pseudoscience in the service of marketing.” The take-home here might be simple, but not that obvious: Many of us are irritated by fluff, but if the reporter is camouflaging something with “science,” it lends the story a kind of plump fullness that is sexy, luscious, and, well, click worthy.
  2. CBS uses shameless clickbait with a “Too Much of This Will Kill You” slideshow.

    Danger sells. As we discussed in CBS uses shameless clickbait with ‘Too Much of This Will Kill You,’ the network trotted out not just hyperbole but also the uncommon sight of women wearing skimpy Mad Max-esque clothes–just to get clicks to a slideshow about the dangers of eating licorice, salt and polar bear liver. It is pure nutrition-mongering, which HealthNewsReview.org publisher Gary Schwitzer said allows CBS to “brag to advertisers about increased traffic.” His advice is in the “don’t get mad, get even” category: “CBS should [instead] try to do a 10-series slide capturing our 10 story review criteria,” he writes.

  3. Gross things sell. In our review of an NPR story from August 2016 that pondered if parasitic worms could cure allergies, we pointed out how the story teases readers with the claim that worms “do something amazing” to the immune system. However, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that clinical studies on worms have been disappointing–hardly an amazing cure worth baiting readers over.
  4. Immortality sells. Is there anything more irresistible than promising to reveal the secret to living longer? In our review of a CNN story on a fasting diet, we noted that reports on the “potential life-extending benefits of periodically fasting, and of consuming a special diet that makes the body think it’s fasting” tends to leave out important details (like who was studied and how). This “unhelpful, clickbait-y approach to the science” is something we’d hope that news outlets could move beyond because making hyperbolic conclusions about fasting–and not pointing out the risks–can, indeed, be risky.
  5. ‘Cures’ sell. Just weeks ago the University of Iowa issued a news release claiming oregano and thyme might contain a possible “cure” for the wasting disease cachexia. We reviewed the problematic news release, and in a follow-up post, determined that the researchers casually sidestepped academic norms and communicated flawed research directly to the public (let’s not talk about chocolate milk, shall we?) Besides taking them to task for potentially misinforming the public, contributor Earle Holland reinforces a central point: Public universities have no business making clickbait claims of “cure,” which is also one of our 7 words you should avoid in medical news.
  6. Questionable food studies sell. This summer, managing editor Kevin Lomangino barely held back his sense of nausea when blogging that White bread ‘healthier’ than whole grain? Why readers should avoid these half-baked stories. Calling it the “latest turn of the clickbait merry-go-round” he lambasted the conclusions from such preliminary studies which “may change from week to week.” The ingredients for this brand of clickbait was a small, two-week study in 20 people, measuring a single lab value. The kicker? The study was carried out by authors promoting something they were financially invested in: personalized diets based on one’s microbiome. Indigestion indeed.
  7. Agendas sell. Last May, staff multimedia producer Michael Joyce brought us the term “clickbait nirvana” in his story Fat but fit’: Studies confuse while advocates & journalists do little to clarify. He astutely points out that when the results of research align with the agendas of advocates, then news organizations often will “gladly hype either end of the spectrum knowing full well that any story that features both obesity and fitness will be clickbait nirvana.” So, can you be fit but fat? Journalists didn’t really clarify, though they did dangle out the clickbait.
  8. Listicles sell. In our review of an NPR story that proffered it would discuss how “Eating More — Or Less — Of 10 Foods May Cut Risk Of Early Death,” we noted that the story wisely contained cautionary advice about the quality of evidence. The headline, however, motivated us to share our own listicle: 5 tips for writing better health headlines.
  9. Not-at-all surprisingly, sex sells. Last year Maxim lured readers in by stating “Want to get better at sex? Just turn on the lights.” The story explains that researchers are investigating whether sitting under bright light bulbs may increase your low sex drive. Yet, as we wrote in a blog post about this and other sexy-but-preliminary research, some news outlets too often jump to misleading, clickbait-worthy conclusions, declaring that this short, small, unpublished study proves light is all it takes to boost sexual desire or, as many erroneously stated, “have better sex.” Sex sells, we all know that. But health clickbait with the word “sex” in the title? Ka-ching. Ka-ching.
  10. Mice research sells. Circling back to that beer-hops-may-protect-your-liver headline I mention up above: Turns out it was a study conducted on mice–leaving me with that all-too-familiar feeling of being baited. Mice research (and other animal-medical studies) often have exciting results that make for good headlines. Too bad the findings often don’t pan out. We see this tactic all the time.

Ah, clickbait, such an easy route to more clicks for health writers. Yet, most health news is really its most honest when it avoids polarity and reflects the slowly changing nature of science. Good science reporting is ultimately nutritious and wholesome, but not sexy. Clickbait is ultimately like junk food, it may be sweet and attractive, but too much is decidedly unhealthy.

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