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Media Representations of Genetic Discoveries: Hype in the Headlines? Open Access


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Caulfield, Timothy
Bubela, Tania
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Research Material
Many commentators have expressed concern regarding the sensationalistic reporting of biomedical stories by the popular press. It has been suggested that inaccurate or exaggerated reporting can have an adverse impact on public understanding, creating unwarranted hope or fears, and the development of informed policies. Readers get their first or only impressions from headlines. Unfortunately, there are reasons to believe that headlines may be particularly inaccurate or “hyped.” Science and medical stories have to compete with other news stories and, as such, headlines must be constructed to catch the attention of both the potential reader and editors who make publishing decisions. As a result, even when a media report is circumspect, headlines may be sensationalized. “Headline sensationalism” has been associated with a variety of specific social concerns. For example, in the context of genetic discoveries, repeated exposure of the lay public to such headlines may lead to heightened genetic determinism. That is, the public will come to develop an inaccurate belief that there is a tight causal linkage between a gene and a given human trait or disease. It has also been noted that headlines can influence how the reader interprets the information presented within the body of the full article. Sensationalized headlines that bear little resemblance to the article may generate antipathy or disappointment among some readers, creating a degree of bad will with a portion of the potential audience that should give editors pause. They may also alienate sources, including those in the scientific community. While there is a growing body of research on the accuracy and nature of newspaper stories, there is little available data on the accuracy of headlines in the context of genetic research. This study builds on the results of a previous paper examining the accuracy of newspaper stories. We examine the degree and nature of the “hype” present in newspaper headlines associated with stories on genetic discoveries.
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© 2004 Health Law Institute, University of Alberta. This version of this article is open access and can be downloaded and shared. The original authors and source must be cited.
Citation for previous publication
Caulfield T, Bubela TM (2004) Media Representations of Genetic Discoveries: Hype in the Headlines? 12(2) Health Law Review 12(2): 53-61.
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