I woke up this morning and routinely checked my newsfeeds, which include various searches for proton news. I was horrified to learn of a disastrous occurrence. I read and re-read this chilling headline several times:
Proton beam failure leaves hundreds of
child cancer patients at risk.
What? A proton beam failure? Potentially harming children? Where was that? What kind of failure? Are the children okay?
I quickly went to the full text article. I read it twice. Thankfully, there was actually no proton beam failure at all. Much to my relief, no children were hurt by any renegade proton beams.
The first paragraph accurately states the very different crux of the matter: “Hundreds of children with cancer are resorting to inferior treatment because of a failure to open two flagship specialist centres” on time in London and Manchester.
Most importantly, the children were not hurt by a proton beam failure. In fact, it was just the opposite.
That’s quite a different story. It implies that proton therapy is the superior treatment. It states that not one, but two proton facilities will open (late) as “flagship” cancer centers. Most importantly, the children were not hurt by a proton beam failure. In fact, it was just the opposite. They were potentially hurt by a failure to provide proton beam therapy to them.
The Telegraph article carries the byline of Justin Stoneman and Henry Bodkin. They explain that many of those children might have been sent by NHS (the United Kingdom’s National Health Service) to Florida for proton therapy, if not for the expectation that the new facilities in their own country would be open for business on schedule. So the child cancer patients are now forced to consider an alternate, inferior therapy that was not explicitly identified in the article.
What a tragedy for those children. But what a relief for proton advocates who were shocked by the scary headline.
The damage is done
How many people who read that horribly misleading headline now believe proton therapy is risky business? How many think a proton beam failure can put literally hundreds of patients in jeopardy? How many readers only read the headline?
Worse yet, this damaging headline is echoed on other sites. Lifeboat.com used the exact same headline. It’s also found on English news, One News Page, Malta News, and possibly others. How hard can it be to create a headline that accurately reflects the article’s content?
How hard can it be to create a headline that accurately reflects the article’s content?
This is the worst kind of irresponsible journalism. A careless headline explicitly stating the opposite of what really occurred is shameful. Sadly, it’s not the first bad headline, nor will it be the last. I recently examined another such headline in depth. That one was from the New York Times, and much of what I said about their ill-constructed headline applies to this one, so I won’t repeat myself.
I did manage to find one source reporting this important story with an appropriate headline. Pressreader.com ran it with “Children hit by delays in opening two proton beam cancer units” at the top. You’ll need a free subscription to read it there, but nevertheless—kudos to Pressreader. Although their article is nearly identical to the one at The Telegraph (which they cite), someone at Pressreader made the effort to change the headline. No byline is included, but my thanks to that responsible journalist.
Unfortunately, this is the exception that proves the rule.
In this case, the rule is exemplified by Mr. Stoneman and Mr. Bodkin. Did they read their own article? Did they intentionally mislead their readers because of a bias against proton therapy? Or did they merely neglect to give it much thought, carelessly tossing a terribly misleading headline atop an important story? Maybe they’re just not that good with words. Take your pick—it doesn’t matter. The result is the same.
A pro-proton article
I actually don’t think Stoneman and Bodkin have an anti-proton bias. I think it was just carelessness because ironically, the article is extremely complimentary and fair towards proton therapy.
… ironically, the article is extremely complimentary and fair towards proton therapy.
They refer to the unnamed alternative to proton therapy as “inferior.” They call the two promised proton centers “flagship centres.” The phrase “state-of-the-art proton beam therapy” appears in the second paragraph. The two journalists accurately describe proton therapy as using a “high-energy beam of particles to destroy cancer cells while leaving healthy tissue unaffected.” They correctly acknowledge proton as being “particularly valuable for children, who face higher risks of permanent side effects.”
Too bad they missed the boat so badly on the headline.
The state of journalism
Stoneman and Bodkin are not atypical of today’s journalist. So-called journalism has become careless, biased, and often hasty. Stories happen at the speed of the Internet, often at the cost of accuracy and prudence. It is a challenge to sort out whether information is unbiased reporting, or editorializing disguised as news. Meeting that challenge has now become our responsibility.
It is up to us to seek and identify the purposeful intent or accidental result of the reporter’s words.
In some situations the news-spin is clearly intentional. At other times—as I suspect is the case here—it can be accidental. Regardless, unless we consumers of news become highly analytical, we will be sitting ducks for misinformation. We cannot afford to be casual, trusting consumers of news. It is up to us to seek and identify the purposeful intent or accidental result of the reporter’s words.
We must analyze, evaluate, and be somewhat suspicious—starting with the headline.
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