Journalism: Story refutes its own headline

Journalism: Story refutes its own headline

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Headline: Accidental Poisonings Rise After Trump Disinfectant Comments | Time

The headline is intended to convey the message that Trump’s bizarre comments on disinfectants on April 23d led to a rise in accidental poisonings.

The implied conclusion, though, is false. Official data showed a sharp rise in poisonings from March onward as people become obsessed with sanitizing hands and surfaces. Accidental poisoning had been on the rise for months, in fact.

The text of the story negates the story’s own headline:

In January, February and March of 2020, accidental poisonings with household disinfectants were up 5%, 17% and 93% respectively over the same months in 2019. In April, which includes an eight day period from the 23rd of the month to the 30th, following Trump’s comments, the increase was 121% compared to April of 2019. In the first ten days of May, things settled down some, with poisonings up 69% over the same 10-day period in 2019.

For bleach, the numbers are less dramatic, but still telling. In January, February and March 2020 poisonings were up 7%, 1% and 59% respectively over each of the same months last year. In April they leapt 77%.

Some where around 60% of readers will scan the headline and remember that message. Fewer still will read in to the entire article to get the full picture. Consequently, the message delivered by the misleading headline is the one that is remembered.

Ars Technica looked at the numbers and found the rise significantly pre-dated Trump’s bizarre comments.

But on Tuesday, the American Association of Poison Control Centers published National Poison Data System data collected from around the country, and it exonerates Trump.

This approach of spinning a false headline is effective in terms of propaganda. As frequently noted on this blog, the first message heard by a target is the one most likely to be remembered, even if subsequently corrected. People will remember that Trump made ridiculous comments implying injecting disinfectants might be solution to Covid-19 leading to a rise in poisonings – even though the data show the rise began more than a month earlier as people became obsessed with sanitizing everything.
Just one more example of fictional news.
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