Pigeon droppings made national news this morning with the headline:
‘Two patients have died after contracting a fungal infection caused by pigeon droppings.’
BBC Scotland then had a longer piece headed:
‘Two patients have dies after falling ill from an infection caused by pigeons.’
Only six sentences later did we hear, quietly inserted, that one patient had died from ‘an unrelated cause’ and that the other’s death was ‘being investigated.’
The headlines are only true in the chronological sense that these patients died some time ‘after’ the infections took place just as the deaths took place ‘after’ many other events in the preceding days.
‘Elderly Glasgow man has died after Prince Phillip’s car crash!’
Note that no official announcement by the hospital was made and the report relied on two perhaps ‘unrelated experts’. We got the BBC’s favourite go-to-guy, ‘Union a boon to science’, long-retired but keen and available, Prof Pennington, and a private contractor who may or may not, have ever been inside the hospital in question.
The Herald and the Scotsman missed it, STV went ‘after’ the same headline story and of course the Sun and the Record had an even worse headline:
Time after time we see this phenomenon, of headlines which are not accurate, but which can have disproportionate effects. Many only absorb headlines and miss the important information often in the full report not prominent there. Journalists know that effect and where there is an agenda, the damage can be done regardless of later qualifying comment.
Once more, must we remind the BBC that they are tax-payer funded and thus have a moral responsibility to their audience, as well as their royal charter requirement, to be informative?
Evidence of why headlines matter more:
Footnote: I’m not by any means recommending the above Steven Pinker’s other ideas!