Playing Chinese whispers with science headlines

A couple of months ago I started working as an intern with the communications team of Imperial College London. I write articles for the news site on research carried out by Imperial scientists. Naturally this involves simplifying technical detail for a lay audience. At Imperial I am surrounded by people who spend a great deal of time discussing science communication. We think long and hard about how best to make science accessible and entertaining without compromising accuracy. We also spend a fair bit of time worrying over what counts as ‘accurate’ and ranting about how most journalists don’t share science communicators’ qualms. Still, one wishfully thinks that their professional training and values must count for something. One is wrong. One was recently shocked by just how mercenary science journalism can be.

My first article covered experiments on the use of large structures, inspired by metamaterials, to protect buildings from earthquakes. Imperial is well-known for its metamaterial research because of Sir John Pendry, the father of ‘invisibility cloaks’. That term is not a media gimmick. Physicists themselves write of invisibility cloaks in their research papers, nodding to Harry Potter in an unprecedented display of PR savviness.

The communications team is understandably keen to exploit this selling feature of the university to promote other cool research in related areas. Like seismic cloaking. Seismic cloaks are designed to deflect earthquakes, not light, so they can never produce literal invisibility. However, they do work in the same way, and ‘invisibility cloak’ sells better than ‘large metamaterial-inspired structures’, so my article’s headline runs like this:

‘Invisibility cloaks’ for buildings could protect them from earthquakes

Imperial College London

I must add that the term ‘invisibility cloak’ appears nowhere in the primary research papers on which this press release is based. My first draft read “Natural and man-made barriers can protect buildings against earthquakes”; my editor quickly (and rightly) discarded that one on the grounds of vagueness and boring-ness. The new headline is a good compromise, I think. It links this research to the work Imperial is known for, it seizes the reader’s attention and, by keeping the scare quotes around ‘invisibility cloaks’, alerts to the cheeky use of this term – which is clarified in the body of the text.

The scientists involved read the article to verify that I was presenting their research accurately and gave the green-light, so we published it. It had a really good reception: the next day The Daily Mail picked up the story and published it online, pretty much word for word. (As a university press officer, my writing is under a creative commons license – although they should have given attribution.) This is good news for me: an editor at a national newspaper thought that I had done a good job of covering an interesting and technically challenging story for a lay audience. I noticed, however, that in their version gone were some of my boring qualifiers, carefully placed for the sake of accuracy. They probably considered that their readers would pay no attention to those anyway. And they are probably right. The Mail Online headline was:

The ‘invisibility cloak’ made of trees that could protect buildings from earthquakes

Mail Online

Notice how they chose to focus on the most striking of several structures mentioned in the article: the forest array. Their article also has plenty of Harry Potter material to make the relevance explicit and ensure the page is not too sciencey and scary.

Shotly after, The Mirror published this:

Scientists unveil revolutionary ‘invisibility cloak’ made of TREES designed to protect buildings from earthquakes

The Mirror

This headline does an amazing job of emphasising the news values in a story which may otherwise not tempt their readers. To my innocent sensibilities it appeared scandalously sensationalist. In true tabloid style, most of the contextual information that is not obviously relevant from a social point of view was gone from the main text.

It’s clear that certain elements of this story stood out more strongly in the articles curated by journalists at The Mail and The Mirror than in my version. The story became more attractive (at least to their audience) and less accurate (at least to me). This sequential (hierarchical?) ‘popularisation’ (dumbing down?) of science is an interesting process that fills me with questions. How different is their transgression from the one I’ve done to the original research? Is it wrong? Does anyone care?

And would the article have reached any of these outlets (and their considerable audiences) if I hadn’t mentioned the term ‘invisibility cloak’ – my own little peccadillo?

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Author: Bruno Martin

I moved from Spain to the UK to study Biology. Now training to become a professional science communicator. I run, I spend too much time on my computer and I edit a science magazine. Ask me questions!

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