Beyond the Captivating Headlines: How to Make Sense of a Health News Story

By Barbara Ficarra, RN, BSN, MPA

Is the health news story accurate?

Did a recent study prove that coffee may lower the risk of stroke?  How was it reported?

Writing magnetic headlines are required for any writer.

After all, headlines capture your attention and at that moment you will decide whether to read the piece or not.

According to Copyblogger, “On average, 8 out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest. This is the secret to the power of your title, and why it so highly determines the effectiveness of the entire piece.”

“So it’s fairly obvious that if people stop at the headline, you’re already dead in the water.”

Health writers are no different.  They craft their headlines to grab your attention; they want you to be captivated so you will read the full article.  Now, make sure the content has substance and accuracy.

I was curious to find out what I’d find on Google regarding the recent noise about the possibility of coffee lowering the risk of stroke.  I typed in “Coffee Stroke” and received “about 8,910,000 results.”  Most of the articles had compelling headlines.

These headlines may be compelling, but does the content support these headlines.  Is the information accurate?

How to go beyond the headlines.

Gary Schwitzer, publisher at HealthNewsReview.Org is brilliant at dissecting health stories for accuracy.  He helps journalists and consumers understand the importance of accurate and balanced news stories.

As a smart health consumer, ask yourself, does the content in the article support the snappy headlines?  Schwitzer offers a “tool kit” for journalists and consumers to help decipher a health news story.

With permission granted from Schwitzer, please take a look at his recent blog “Coffee & stroke: what the study didn’t prove and what some stories got wrong.”

Coffee & stroke: what the study didn’t prove and what some stories got wrong

By Gary Schwitzer

Here we go again. Headlines across America today blaring lines like “Coffee may reduce stroke risk.”

It was a big study, but an observational study. Not a trial. Not an experiment. And, as we say so many times on this site you could almost join along with the chorus – observational studies have inherent limitations that should always be mentioned in stories. They can’t prove cause and effect. They can show a strong statistical association, but they can’t prove cause and effect. So you can’t prove benefit or risk reduction. And stories should say that.

USA Today, for example, did not explain that in its story. Nor did it include any of the limitations that were included in, for example, a HealthDay story, which stated:

“The problem with this type of study is that there are too many factors unaccounted for and association does not prove causality, said Dr. Larry B. Goldstein, director of the Duke Stroke Center at Duke University Medical Center.

“Subjects were asked about their past coffee consumption in a questionnaire and then followed over time. There is no way to know if they changed their behavior,” Goldstein said.

And, he noted, there was no control for medication use or other potential but unmeasured factors.

“The study is restricted to a Scandinavian population, and it is not clear, even if there is a relationship, that it would be present in more diverse populations. I think that it can be concluded, at least in this population, that there was not an increased risk of stroke among coffee drinkers,” he said.”

When you don’t explain the limitations of observational studies – and/or when you imply that cause-and-effect has been established, you lose credibility with some readers. And you should.

Note some of the comments left on the USA Today website:

  • “Within a few weeks a new ‘study’ will come out telling us how bad coffee is for us.”
  • “Sign…I wish someone would make up their minds! Wasn’t it just a week or so ago there was a study about smog, coffee, etc., being bad for ya?”
  • “Remember when “scientific” studies were considered trustworthy and reliable?? How can anyone tell the few pearls of knowledge in a world of pointless studies that flip-flop results and rehash incessantly??”
  • “Drinking coffee reduces strokes per this study. Didn’t another say it causes cancer?”

USA Today wasn’t alone in being incomplete.

WebMD was just plain inaccurate when it stated: “1 or More Cups of Coffee a Day Reduces Stroke Risk in Women.”  The study didn’t prove that. had a simply silly story that led:

” Ladies, you knew there was a good reason for that double mochachino you have every morning and maybe that one at lunch too.”

At least they came back later and explained:

“As for your mochachino, no word yet on the benefits of whipped cream and chocolate sauce.”
But why even go there to begin with?, by comparison, emphasized this study showed “association, not causation.” Kudos to them.

For anyone – journalist or consumer – or researcher, for that matter – who doesn’t grasp the importance of using the correct language to describe observational studies, please see our primer on this topic.

What you can do

After the captivating headlines grab your attention, make sure the content is solid.  Take charge of your health and dig deep.  By being an empowered health consumer you allow yourself to seek out accurate information.  To find out if a health news story has all the necessary components for killer content, please take a look at “Digging Deep:  The 411 Behind Medical News Headlines.

Your turn

We would love to hear from you.  Please share your insights in the comment section below.  Are you captivated by the headlines?  Do you trust completely that the health news story you read is accurate?  Do you dig deeper to find out what’s behind the headlines?

As always, thank you for your time.

Related posts

Gary Schwitzer Notes Some Gems in Health News Reporting
Digging Deep: The 411 Behind Medical News Headlines
Q&A with Gary Schwitzer, Health Care Journalism Expert–Digging Deep
Health Journalism: Have we reached new lows?
Social Media: Top 5 Useful Health Tweets
Social Media: Barbara Ficarra on FOX News Live Talks About Medical Social Networking
Social Media: Medical Social Networking – Part 2



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