Turning Headlines into Public Health Messages

Departments - Consumer Perspectives

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August 7, 2019

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DARIN DETWILER, Assistant Dean, College of Professional Studies, Northeastern University

How do consumers find out about an outbreak or a recall? Is information too little or too late? Or can news about a public health concern cause a problem simply because of how it is framed?

Perhaps even in this age of social media and viral videos, we should consider the importance of a newspaper headline. Much discussion on social media related to the news of the day still originates from original reporting in traditional news outlets. Newspaper headlines are still one of the most powerful contributors to readers’ opinions and actions related to public health or consumer behavior. However, as the 2014 media study, The Personal News Cycle by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute found, only about four of 10 Americans surveyed delve deeper into a particular news subject beyond the headlines. Thus, in a non-read article, the headline is the only contributor to such action. As a result, “headlines have become almost like articles in and of themselves,” as was stated in the 2016 Forbes article, 59 Percent Of You Will Share This Article Without Even Reading It by J. DeMers. Additionally, the 2016 study, Social Clicks: What and Who Gets Read on Twitter? from Inria scientists, discussed how news is influenced and how it becomes influential, supporting the idea that public opinion related to politics, and even natural disasters, is influenced by editorial decisions and the source of the information.

If we look at newspaper headlines from the landmark 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, a clear pattern can be seen. An analysis of the headlines from articles covering the 1993 outbreak reveal differences in the words used and, thus, the message communicated. I must note that the reporters and investigative journalists at that time faced the same challenges as consumers in that E. coli and outbreaks such as this were a relatively new phenomenon.

I recently presented the above images to state officials in Virginia whose jurisdiction focuses on agriculture and consumer safety. The words in the images represent the key nouns and verbs, while the size of the font indicates the number of times the word appeared in headlines. The word bubble on the left reflects key words found in the headlines from The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post from January to April 1993. While these papers originated a great distance from the actual outbreak, they have long been regarded as leading and influential papers from which other papers derive content.

In contrast, the word bubble on the right reflects key words found in the headlines from papers at or close to the outbreak, including the Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the Bellingham (WA) Herald from January to April 1993. The attendees immediately noticed that the national papers never mentioned E. coli, focused on the names of the companies involved, and, perhaps more concerning, sent messages that focused more on the problem of the product and less on the public health concern. In contrast, they described the local papers’ headlines as focusing on the victims, community, public health, and the true burden of disease. Ultimately, they concluded that the local papers’ headlines seen in 1993 would have impacted consumer opinion and behavior more than those in national papers.

I do not want to fault the national papers for this observation of difference in message. The overall culture change related to food safety since that 1993 outbreak has impacted national news and the words used to describe outbreaks and recalls. Events as recent as the Chipotle outbreaks and the incidents with Romaine lettuce highlight the fact that the media covers these food concerns more and with greater accuracy. Further, industry journals such as Quality Assurance and Food Safety (QA) magazine invest an enormous amount of research and advisory input to their articles.

The impact on the food safety officials in my audience was clear: We, as food safety experts and as consumers, cannot assume that all media sources — print or online, investigative journalism, or social media — convey the same message about a public health concern. The headlines are a key element in communicating critical information that can influence not only consumers’ actions, but also those who work in the food industry.