Toilet Bowl Tuesday: A craptastic race to the bottom for misleading health news

Michael Joyce is a writer-producer with and tweets as @mlmjoyce

After today he’s advising all his friends to wash down their french fries with about 2.4 to 2.6 drinks and avoid having lively conversations.

Sunday’s Super Bowl supposedly represented the zenith of professional football: top players, in top form, playing at the top level.

Anyone want to give me odds on any of the following news stories — which all showed up in our newsfeed before 9 AM today —  winning some sort of Toilet Bowl for health news?

Hey Newsweek! Watch your language!

Good news. If you’re a bald mouse with access to a McDonalds, your ship has come in.

Newsweek wants you to know that dimethylpolysiloxane — “the silicone added to McDonald’s fries to keep the cooking oil from frothing” — makes a great cell culture medium for growing “hair follicle germs” (HFG’s) that can be transplanted on to nude mice and make hair grow.

Apparently this “groundbreaking method” is enough of a  “breakthrough” to justify the headline, but maybe not enough of one for McDonalds, whom we’re told “did not respond to Newsweek’s request for comment.”

There is one factoid included that might help explain the clickbait; we’re told, “in 2016, the U.S. hair loss treatment manufacturing industry was worth $6 billion.”

I think we already knew that. But I bet a lot of mice didn’t.

One small step for a mouse, one giant leap for mankind

From McDonalds, the newly coiffed mouse can then head over to the local watering hole, and knock a couple down for memory’s sake.

A couple of problems here. First is the news release of the University of Rochester mouse study which opens with this line:

“While a couple of glasses of wine can help clear the mind after a busy day, new research shows that it may actually help clean the mind as well.”

While the news release does well to remind people that “excessive consumption of alcohol is a health hazard,” it’s only halfway into the release we learn this is a mouse study and the headline is, therefore, simply unjustified hype.

And then there’s this coverage from Fox News. Are these two sentences an attempt at balance?

“They found that mice who had the equivalent of 2.5 drinks a day could clear out brain waste more efficiently than mice who were exposed to no alcohol at all.”

… and …

“It’s important not to overdo it, though: Rodents exposed to high levels of alcohol fared less well, with inflammation, cognitive impairment and impeded motor skills.”

That second sentence is bio-speak for “drunk.”

And the headline emphasizing that alcohol “can help you fight Alzheimer’s” is simply called “guessing.” It’s based on the notion that if low levels of alcohol help clear waste from mouse brains — and that “waste” includes things like amyloid and tau which are associated with Alzheimer’s — then low-dose alcohol must help humans fight Alzheimer’s disease.

That’s one giant leap, indeed.

Heart Health 101: Avoid talking in crowds of two or more?

Does it qualify as hype if you take an observational study looking at noise pollution and heart disease and write a headline like this?

Everyday noises may cause increased risk of heart disease, experts say

Yes. It does. Because you can’t establish cause and effect with this kind of study.

And it’s also not in the public’s best interest to include a sentence like this:

“Noise pollution should be considered a risk factor for heart disease, similar to that of high cholesterol and obesity.”

ABC’s icing on the cake is including this quote from the lead author:

Though there is no set threshold to establish risk, we do know that anything above 60 decibels can increase risk for heart disease.

For the record, 60 decibels is the level of conversational speech. And we’re being led to believe we should be as worried about that as a large order of fries? (at least the latter will prevent baldness).

Two patients ≠ ‘breakthrough

Rule of thumb: when writing about a study that has only two subjects, and the author of that study tells you “I think this is a breakthrough in vitiligo treatment,” at the very least do two things. Don’t just tell people that vitiligo affects 2 percent of the population (a nice inclusion) but also make sure to let your readers know the study involved just two subjects.

Also, let people know that the author of the study has financial ties to the company that makes the drug being studied; in this case, Pfizer makes the tofacitinib that was combined with the ultraviolet-B light therapy and produced (per the author) “results that are impossible to achieve with common therapies.”

And while you’re at it, why not mention the cost of this off-label treatment, the possible side effects & drug interactions, and use data — rather than anecdotes from the study’s two subjects — to help us weigh the risks versus benefits.

This isn’t the first time we’ve wanted to flush and clean the bowl. Here are some other examples.

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Comments (2)

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Robert Jaffe

February 24, 2018 at 10:36 am

It’s hard to believe that the stories and headlines of which you (rightly) complain all the time aren’t structurally motivated from within news organizations. And if that’s true I’m sure I and other constant readers would like to know about it, at length. Specifically, is it true that the people writing headlines are frequently headline specialists rather than the writers of articles? Is it true that the compensation of both article writers and headline writers is increased in some way by the number of clicks their headlines/articles generate? To what extent are such pay incentives general throughout the industry? Are such writers in some way limited in the amount of work time they can spend on a particular articles or headline? For those (few?) news organizations that value quality and accuracy, how are those values built into their structure as that structure affects the working day and working efforts of their frontline staff? To what extent if any do pay policies of news organizations contradict their publicly stated social values? Rather than just continue to repeat your implied message of “aren’t these people irresponsible idiots” (though maybe they ARE!), shouldn’t we find out and know whether the whole system is rigged to produce these stories/headlines even were the writers to be solely Einsteins and Mother Teresas?

    Kevin Lomangino

    February 27, 2018 at 10:16 am


    Thanks for your comments and questions, which are perceptive and worth addressing. Here is a short response to some of them:

    1. Yes, the journalist who writes the article is rarely the person who writes the headline.
    2. Yes, there are incentives at some organizations for articles that generate more traffic.
    3. Yes, journalists are limited in the amount of time they can work on specific articles.
    4. Yes, the system is rigged to produce these stories and headlines.

    However, our message is not “aren’t these people irresponsible idiots.” In fact, we think that almost nobody in this industry gets up in the morning and asks themselves, “How can I go out and mislead people today.” There are a combination of factors at play, including ignorance, lack of training, lack of time/resources, and systemic incentives to produce low-quality journalism. This post calls attention to a particularly bad day and some particularly egregious examples. On many other days you might find us writing about the forces that conspire to produce this kind of journalism and how those forces can be resisted.

    Of course, our small project may not, by itself, have the power to change a rigged system. However, we are actively calling attention to these issues at every level and making all players in this system aware — including journalists, editors, publishers, PR people. We also provide help for the people who see the ethical obligation to change and who are trying to do better. And if nothing else, we offer an alternative for the beleaguered news consumer who doesn’t know where to turn for quality information.

    You might argue that this isn’t enough and perhaps you would be right. But it’s more than anyone else is doing.

    Kevin Lomangino
    Managing Editor