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.
Well, ya know Yellowstone is a bit overdue…yes I can see your point and yet, it is not getting any easier to sell papers these days. My local paper sold for 160 million ten years ago, it brought 16 million last week-they are desperate.
No such thing as “overdue” when it comes to volcanoes! Just because something erupts on average every X years, that doesn’t mean it must follow that schedule. And most likely kind of eruption at Yellowstone in the near future is a smaller hydrothermal one, anyway.
I appreciate the need to sell papers, but misleading headlines like that amount to fearmongering, and they’re unworthy of a publication like the Post.
Boy, you’re being a little rough on the guy! While I agree the title is crafted for attention, it is technically correct. Unlike the UK tabloids, there is no implication of impending doom, only eventual consummation. You don’t want to push him to the other extreme and discourage him from ever talking to a volcanologist again…
Ah, but the point I was making was that the reporting was just fine – it was the headline that was the problem, and headlines are decided by editors. And to be honest, Yellowstone isn’t a disaster waiting to happen, because it’s highly unlikely to have another large caldera eruption. I work with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory folks, and they spend an inordinate amount of time quashing fearmongering, so I have no problem helping them by calling out a poorly chosen headline, especially in a major newspaper that should know better.
Unfortunately, seems the overall tone of the Post has changed. More like supermarket tabloids.
I like Jessica’s take on this, and her information on timing and type of Yellowstone personally reassuring. I am not a geologist per se. But an avid hobbyist enjoying learning about the planet.
This headline totally annoyed me too! But I blamed it on the copyeditors at our small town paper who have the ability to write new headlines for AP/reprinted stories. I’m surprised to see it came directly from the Post. Also, I was particularly riled up because it was next to another science story that warned, “Night owls listen up and change your ways—you’re more likely to die in the next 6 years than the rest of the population.” Seriously?! I highly doubt that’s actually what that journal article said.
I am so happy that you are calling out the EDITOR OF THE NEWSPAPER, not the reporter! Fear mongering and pseudoscience are rampant in newspapers, as well as social media! The worst: Dutchsinse aka Michael Janitch and his “earthquake forecast” videos on YouTube!! Many professionals have called him out on this, some even debunking his videos with a YT video. John Vidale’s even tweeted about his pseudoscience just a week ago! This type of clickbait headlines & fraudulent fearmongerers need to be ignored! I, too am learning on my own as I am always asking “why” & “how does” questions. I think Geology, seismology & volcanology in particular, are ever so important in our rapidly-changing world!