Have you ever thought hmm…that’s an interesting headline, is it really true?
Call me a skeptic, but I’ve always been a big advocate of “Is this credible?” It’s one of those things (if you paid attention in English class) that all of us should think about when we are exposed to advertising or news headlines. This article is a prime example of wording headlines appropriately, and how if you don’t, you’re going to instill false hope in a broad audience.
Let’s try this headline on for size: “Good News for Women with Breast Cancer: Many Don’t Need Chemo.”
Wait…what? But chemo is the standard for any cancer treatment and you must have it! What we have here is a headline that’s captivating, compelling, and incites curiosity (all of which we strive for in headlines)—but is it true? Well, it is kinda true. See, in our dense and complex field of pharma marketing, it’s important to remember that not all people with a certain disease have the same “sub” type of that disease. In this particular case, veteran New York Times reporter Denise Grady wrote about a study, which “found that gene tests on tumor samples were able to identify women who could safely skip chemotherapy and take only a drug that blocks the hormone estrogen or stops the body from making it.” However, what the headline doesn’t reveal is that the study actually involved women with early-stage, HR-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer—a common subtype of breast cancer. Readers had to search deeply in the article for this information. But you can see what the headline writer (most likely a copyeditor) did here, generalizing from just one type of breast cancer to one of the largest oncology patient audiences. In theory, yes the headline is right. But, in my opinion, it’s unethical to raise the hopes of an entire population if there’s no qualifying language to help them determine if it applies to them or not.
That’s not all; NCI (National Cancer Institute) published a press release about the same trial. Pay attention and see if you notice anything different about this headline: “TAILORx trial finds most women with early breast cancer do not benefit from chemotherapy.”
See what they did there—just a little bit softer. It’s that tiny nuance between the NCI press release “most women do not benefit from chemotherapy” and the Times “many don’t need chemo” that can throw readers a curveball.
Moral of the story is when we write, we tend to be hopeful, aspirational, and promote positivity. But there’s fine line between what’s accurate and what is just “pie-in-the-sky” ambitious. I have to believe the Times copyeditor who wrote the headline for Grady’s article doesn’t have a heavy hand in the oncology space and how specific we must be. It seems to be a harmless mistake, but the power of words when they are in a headline is monumental. If a reader takes away one thing, it’s the headline. And having a headline that’s overly hopeful, not the most credible, and not accurate to the original intent can hurt more than help.
So next time you read a headline, I hope I’ve awakened the skeptic in you to question it! If it piques your interest, do a little research and see how they formulated it. Because as we see in everyday media and within our field, the truth isn’t always on the surface.
Check out this link that offers helpful guidance for writing and deciphering headlines.