Reporters and editors at mainstream media outlets should be on their best behavior these days, after years of accusations of “fake news.” But there’s a type of misleading reporting that many are finding hard to avoid: the creation of phony health scares, usually mixed up with manners and morals.
Last week, The Washington Post fell into the trap with a claim that looking down at smartphones was causing young people’s skulls to sprout “horns.” Other news outlets followed.
Those who read beyond the headline discovered that the alleged horns were just tiny “bone spurs” around the base of the skull. The researchers speculated that they have something to do with reading off a phone screen because they were more common in young people than in those of middle age. The researchers played down the observation that the spurs were also common in those over 60.
While smartphone reading has become ubiquitous, it’s a relatively new phenomenon, and young people are seen as more likely to do it to excess. And so smartphones have generated great unease and headlines warning that they cause depression, increase the risk of suicide and make people fat.
The Atlantic ran a cover story about how they may have “destroyed a generation.”
The insides of people’s heads are one thing, but the notion of adding horns to the outside is bound to go viral.
The Post story contained a quote from a researcher at Yale who pointed out, quite reasonably, that the study on which the story was based did not include any information about cell phone use at all, so assuming a connection between the observed bone spurs and phone use is only a guess. But as often happens, the reporter treated this as a bit of token skepticism rather than a reason to rethink the whole story.
The paper was initially thrust in the spotlight by the BBC, where it was included as part of a story on how modern life was changing the human skeleton. Though that story presented the finding more as a curiosity than a health scare, it tied the phenomenon of spurs at the base of the skull to supporting the weight of the head in an unusual position during less-than-productive behavior: “As we lean forwards to pore over famous dogs on social media, our necks must strain,” it read.
As a person who has a smartphone and is also a lifelong reader of books, I can attest that the reading posture would be the same for a more intellectually ambitious young person reading “Jane Eyre” on a tablet or an old-fashioned paperback. There’s no way the news media would try to scare people away from reading books.
Which gets us back to those manners and morals. Perhaps news reporters and editors feel that excessive smartphone use is a bad and annoying habit, and so they don’t closely scrutinize a sensational claim about phone use.
A few outlets, such as the New York Times, followed with a skeptical take. Quartz pointed out that one of the researchers of the original study had a potential conflict of interest, because he is a chiropractor who sold “posture pillows.”
Still, the more important problem is the fact that the whole smartphone claim was backed by no evidence.
This spring, at a meeting at the Columbia School of Journalism, reporters were urged to more aggressively scare people about human-induced climate change. Fake news? Not at all, because there is ample evidence that it’s happening, and that it’s likely to get a lot worse.
Fair and balanced reporting on the climate should be really scary. But the efforts of the environmental journalists are being undermined by the health journalists. The “horns” story just made it harder for readers to take any scary headline seriously.