20 Science Journalism – Sensationalized Headlines

This chapter examines the issues of sensationalized science journalism. These can be widespread panic or excitement that sensationalized headlines create and general misinformation and ignorance. In general, it seems to be a rather difficult task to communicate science accurately to the public.  Another issue on a deeper level is that repeatedly sensationalized headlines lead to public that is desensitized in a way to scientific discoveries. Referencing the “boy who cried wolf” when something of great significance and importance actually comes along, the reaction might be to simply brush it aside as people think scientists discovered that a while ago.

The biggest question really seems who is to blame? Is it irresponsible journalists, incentivized scientists propagating bad science, or the media  which seems to pick up these ideas and infiltrate the public with incorrect ideas? Sensationalism is essentially exaggerated statements about a scientific work: “Sensationalism in medical reporting occurs when extravagant claims or interpretations about research findings are made” (Ransohoff & Ransohoff, 2001). A typical explanation of the problem is “miscommunication” (Ransohoff & Ransohoff, 2001). But the problem also stems from less honorable sources such as popularity and renown on the part of scientists or their institutions. Andrew Moore explains: “although it is easy to blame sensationalism and scandal-mongering by the media, the scientific world, including scientific journals, are willing accomplices in many cases” (Moore, 2006). The issue with sensationalism is not just misinformation but also “false hopes and unwarranted fears” (Ransohoff & Ransohoff, 2001). Moore points out that deeper than this: “bad science has a devastating effect on scientific communities and, if it is reported in the media, it can have a devastating effect on society” (Moore, 2006).

Sensationalized headlines are a problem and John Bohannon, a science journalist wanted to show the ridiculousness of sensationalism which he explains in his article: “I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss”  (2015). Bohannon says Peter Onnekan and Diana Löbl contacted him to help “demonstrate just how easy it is to turn bad science into the big headlines behind diet fads” (2015), essentially they recruited him to help them pull a prank on the public. They set up a clinical trial and he says “it was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science” (2015). The trial did not have enough participants to have a real result. Bohannon explains: “here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result” (2015). The results were utterly meaningless, yet he was able to publish the  paper to journal publishers who used no peer review. Some claimed to critically review papers before publication but their article was printed with no changes. This was only the first step in the corrupt system. Following a press release, most reporters did not get in touch with Bohannon for any sort of verification, nor did they use other sources to validate the results of the work. Bohannon says that when reporters did try to talk with him they asked him superficial questions that did not establish the credibility of his article. If any of the journalists had questioned the small sample group or even included that number in their reports, they would have realized that the experiment was completely bogus (Bohannon, 2015). John Bohannon finally revealed that the work was a hoax and in an interview with NPR  host Robert Siegel stated: “Well, my goal was to show that scientists who do a bad job and get their work published can end up making headlines because it’s us, journalists like you and me, who are failing” (Siegel, 2015). This statement specifically references to the fact that Bohannon believes the blame for sensationalism lies with the journalist who does not ask enough questions or consult other sources as opposed to the scientist who performed bad science.

In another take on the issue of sensationalism, Marcia McNutt addresses the issue of scientific communication in an editorial for Science. She states: “Even the most brilliant scientific discovery, if not communicated widely and accurately, is of little value” (McNutt, 2013). She talks about the breakdown of the peer review process and criticizes scientists: “for a profession that prides itself on the application of experimentation and observation to find truth, scant attention has been paid to improving the institution of peer review” (McNutt, 2013). McNutt phrases her editorial as a sharp reprimand to scientists for not putting enough effort into establishing the validity of their review process . She says that science communication is highly lacking at the moment and needs to be revolutionized and calls to attention scientists to do the remodeling because science communications’ quality standards are seriously falling. This article (McNutt, 2013) addresses the issues of science communication within the science community. Conveying information to other scientists can be difficult but is far more important for quality and credibility standards. Perhaps reducing the confusion between scientists can help reduce the amount of sensationalism when it comes to delivering this information to the public. McNutt’s viewpoint blames scientists for the issue of sensationalism and her call to arms is geared towards scientists who care about conveying accurate, quality information.

Susan Fitzpatrick talks about the complications and motivations of why scientists even need media coverage, in her article entitled “Sensational News.” Since journalists rarely take the time to critically question and publish sensationalist articles, why does the scientific community seeks media coverage? Fitzpatrick addresses the reason by stating that scientists were told that in order to receive funding, they needed public support . Scientists wanted their work to be “discussed in the pages of newspapers and mentioned on television news shows” (Fitzpatrick, 2000). In response to this, newspapers made a specific “medical/science slot. But filling the slots on a daily basis requires a steady stream of scientific ‘breakthroughs’” (Fitzpatrick, 2000). The issue seems clear: people wanted revolutionary science discoveries daily . This led to a very established pattern for press releases: a sensationalized heading or “hook,” a short paragraph about the science in cursory terms, a validating quote from a unknown and potentially unreliable source basically explain that “the finding is interesting but more research is needed (Fitzpatrick, 2000). This essentially is the reason for sensationalized science journalism on the part of journalists and scientists who are willing to allow their work to be subjected to this ludicrousness.

Another issue with sensationalism is that in its current state, the process of follow-up on sensationalized information is highly lacking; especially in the media. A Commentary in the American Journal of Medicine entitled “Toward a More Responsible News Media” by Sripal Bangalore and Franz H. Messerli speaks to this issue. It says that “mass media is a primary source of health and science news for patients and many physicians alike, and disseminates information to millions of people, quickly and efficiently” (Bangalore & Messerli, 2013). But, the article, (Bangalore & Messerli, 2013), goes on to say that mass media is often “criticized as alarmist or sensationalized.” It insightfully speaks to the motives for such issues: “there is an incentive for this kind of sensationalism because it creates publicity for the scientist and readership/viewership for the media” (Bangalore & Messerli, 2013). In a striking comparison between physicians and medical news reporters, Bangalore and Messerli say that physicians are charged with negligence if they do not follow-up on a test report but medical news reporters do not face any such problems. In the example that the article (Bangalore & Messerli, 2013) examines, the sensational news had a great deal of coverage and attention but the statement refuting the news and reassuring the public had barely any coverage. The paper concludes by stating that “the responsibility of the media to accurately report updated scientific knowledge about such news is not clear. Given the long outreach of the media and the harm it can potentially cause as a result of inappropriate reports, it is incumbent upon the media to come up with recommendations to govern such reporting and establish standards” (Bangalore & Messerli, 2013). This entire article basically establishes that the blame for the sensationalism can be placed on the scientists and the journalists but goes on to argue that after an instance of sensationalism it is not clear who should fix it. But the article (Bangalore & Messerli, 2013) does state that if the media were to follow up there would be a greater potential for public viewing.

When sensationalism is perpetuated it evolves into something that no longer even resembles science but instead is a statement about society and some current issue. Fitzpatrick states that: “unfortunately, the science often becomes less and less central as the message is honed towards some public issue” (Fitzpatrick, 2000). Moore would agree with her: “Unfortunately, when other aspects of societal interest, such as politics or health, have an impact on a scientific story, in can quickly and easily get out of control” (2006). I think this is very interesting and especially when the sensationalism reaches the media, it seems evident that this is the case. In particular, if the sensationalism is about a huge discovery, the public begins to divide on the ethical and philosophical extremes taking sides when the fundamental science doesn’t even exist.

Although the issue of sensationalized headlines seems grim and lacking hope, there are solutions on the horizon. Fitzpatrick states that “scientists serious about reaching the public should bypass the media” (2000). She says that, in her experience, journalists explain to scientists that they need to, essentially, be more “media savvy.” She explains: “the translation of the word savvy as used by editors is that researchers must learn to play the game and become adept at crafting scientific findings, no matter how arcane or mundane, into news” (Fitzpatrick, 2000). This emphasizes the issue that the pressure seems to be on the scientist to “generate” science to be entertaining to the public. Fitzpatrick makes a very interesting comment on her experience of scientists as being eloquent and articulate, contrary to the stereotype of jargon heavy unintelligible geniuses. She points out that because of this journalists “who took the time to ask careful and thoughtful questions could successfully negotiate the technical gaps” (Fitzpatrick, 2000). Fitzpatrick proposes as a solution to this spiraling problem that scientists, actually dedicated in communicating good science to the public , should examine the quality and motive of the reporter before giving the reporter information on their work. In addition she calls for scientist to rethink why “the publication of a paper, or a presentation at a meeting, should be accompanied by a press release designed to attract media coverage” (Fitzpatrick, 2000). She essentially states that science should only be published in the press when it is news: something groundbreaking or revolutionary. She further suggests that scientists should be writing their own articles and make their voices heard on the web, criticizing incorrect science and preventing the misinformation of the public . She claims that we need more “forums where scientists and the public meet face to face, without intermediary translators with hidden agendas such as selling newspapers, promoting positions, or fundraising” (Fitzpatrick, 2000). I think that Andrew Moore would agree with Fitzpatrick on this point because he states about the reality of journalism: “Journalism will never be a cautious profession as long as its aim is to find and communicate events that are of interest to broad sectors of society” (Moore, 2006).

Another solution involves education, but not increasing the rate of science education, rather educating children how to be science journalists and therefore how to critically evaluate the science news they themselves read. This is supported by an article entitled “Science Journalism, students learn lifelong science literacy skills by reporting the news.” The article, (Polman, Newman, Farrar, & Saul, 2012) , says that there is some amount of knowledge necessary for children to learn but more importantly “students need ways to find, evaluate, and make sense of new scientific and technical information that we cannot predict with any degree of certainty.” The project essentially says that “as high school students report science news, they learn to g1ather and contextualize information and bring critical eyes to that which they read and write” (Polman et al., 2012). The article, (Polman et al., 2012), after going in detail about the specifics of the education program itself, concludes by saying: “science journalism invites young people to serve as “translators” of science information for the general public.” “Science journalism can provide opportunities for students to engage in inquiry that is relevant to them today while also preparing them for a scientifically and technologically advanced future” (Polman et al., 2012).

In conclusion, sensationalism is a problem and there is no real consensus on who is at fault for the problem. There are arguments claiming the blame lies with the journalists, the scientists, or the media. But it does seem that in an effort to resolve some of the issues, a collaboration of the various parties might lead to a more real solution to the problem. A reexamination of the first article, (Ransohoff & Ransohoff, 2001), for solutions to sensationalism shows that there are many aspects of the problem that can be addressed. These include ways to address the miscommunication, by either creating a specific group of professionals to be “medical journalists” or by making a group of scientists to act as a reviewing panel, and ways to reduce the motives or for sensationalism (Ransohoff & Ransohoff, 2001). Finally, the article (Ransohoff & Ransohoff, 2001) points out that most science news is true and that the instances of sensationalism are talked about more: “the cases of sensationalized reporting receive, by their very nature, a disproportionate amount of attention.” Essentially, although sensationalism is a real problem and disheartening when one turns to science for fact and truth, the issue is not as prevalent as it seems simply because there are many more accurate, and balanced works written on science that do not receive the same coverage in the form of attention criticism that sensationalized pieces do.


Bangalore, S., Messerli, F. H. (2013). Toward a More Responsible News Media. The American Journal of Medicine Vol 126, No 5, 370-372.

Bohannon, J. (2015, May 27). I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How. Retrieved from io9: http://io9.com/i-fooled-millions-into-thinking-chocolate-helps-weight-1707251800

Fitzpatrick, S. M. (2000). Sensational News. Forum for Applied Reasearch and Public Policy, 95-98.

McNutt, M. (2013). Improving Scientific Communication. Science, 343, 13.

Moore, A. (2006). Bad science in the headlines. Who takes responsibility when science is distorted in the mass media? EMBO Reports7(12), 1193–1196. http://doi.org/10.1038/sj.embor.7400862

Polman, J., Newman, A., Farrar, C., & Saul, W. (2012). Science Journalism . The Science Teacher, 44-48.

Ransohoff, D.F., & Ransohoff, R.M. (2001). Sensationalism in the Media: When Scientists and Journalists May Be Complicit Collaborators. American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, 185-188.

Siegel, R (host). (2015 May 29). Trickster Journalist Explains Why He Duped The Media On Chocolate Study. [Radio Broadcast episode]. Kenya Young (executive producer), All Things Considered. Washington, DC: National Public Radio.