A headline serves as the title for a news story, but obviously it's more than that. It serves as a guide, letting the reader know what to expect; it forms a context for what they are about to read; and it may be the only part of the article many people look at. Which is to say it's important that a headline be as accurate as you can be in one line.
Unfortunately, headlines often aren't written by the author of the attached article--they're added by an editor or someone else involved with the publishing process. So there's a double layer of understanding to surmount: the science journalist understanding the material and communicating it clearly in an article, then an editor understanding the article and making a good headline. Sadly, the point of a piece of research or a discovery is often lost in these two translations.
It gets even worse when the subject matter is controversial. Now, instead of just two layers of understanding going into the headline, there are also two layers of sensationalism. I'm not trying to say here that science journalists are irresponsible tabloid writers, just that by nature they look at a story and ask, "What's the excitement here? How can we spice up this story?" Then the editor looks over the story and asks, "What's the excitement here? How can we spice up this headline?" Two layers of this, and it's no wonder that the headline often ends up an extreme exaggeration of the science it purports to describe.
It's helpful to look at some examples to see where headlines can go wrong, and what the damage can be. With that in mind, this post is merely the introduction to what I hope will be an ongoing series looking at headlines in science articles. For the most part it will be focussed on where they go wrong, although if I come across anything that strikes me as a particularly good headline for a subtle or difficult topic, I'll post about that too.
Often I see articles pointing out problems with a format, or institution, or society, without any suggestions as to what can be done. This can be useful, but obviously has its limits. So I'm going to try to think about how headlines can be better generated as I post each article about them. Hopefully I'll leave you with not just "This is a problem," but "This is a problem, and here's how it could have been done better."
So, now for some terrible headlines!