21 April 2018

Journalism catastrophe WAITING TO HAPPEN! (or, Let’s talk about headlines)

Posted by Jessica Ball

Just to set the scene, I’m sighing audibly right now. News editors, listen up, because this one is for you:

The best science reporting in the world is diminished when you publish it under a histrionic headline.

Okay. There was the lede, now here’s the meat of the story. I have a great deal of respect for the science reporting of Joel Achenbach, who’s a longtime Washington Post reporter and has survived the slow attrition of science journalists from major media outlets. His work is always well-researched, easy and enjoyable to read, and thought-provoking in delightful ways. Which was why I was excited to hear that my boss had just spent time on the phone giving him comments for an upcoming story about Yellowstone (and Long Valley) calderas. Finally, I thought, a supervolcano story that isn’t all about how a giant eruption will doom us all.

And Mr. Achenbach, to his credit, delivered gracefully, with a well-researched commentary about some new work on the magma “plumbing” system at Yellowstone. What made me facepalm was the title of the article, which I dearly hope was not decided by its author:


This is a headline I’d expect to see coming out of the Express or the Sun, both notorious tabloid clickbait machines which predict volcanic disasters every day of the week. It’s not worthy of the reporting Mr. Achenbach has taken pains to do, nor of a major newspaper in general.

Just a hint to editors who might be tempted to, shall we say, overemphasize a headline about volcanoes to garner more attention: Volcanoes are cool enough without turning them into clickbait. Please consider using headlines that more accurately reflect the content of the articles you publish about geologic research.

Seriously, we’re talking about processes that form the newest rocks on Earth, that reshape our planet’s surface, that create spectacularly beautiful vistas and awe-inspiring eruptions. You can use that to sell papers without invoking doomsday, okay? We’ll still read them.

PS – Also, scientists will be WAY more willing to keep talking to media members if we’re reasonably sure we won’t be framed as prophets of death and destruction. Some of us have to go back and do more work in the places we’re discussing, and it’s a lot easier to do that if you’re not a pariah for driving down property values.