The Problem with Headlines – A Daily Mail Case Study


So today I am going to talk about the role of headlines in contributing to confusion within the public consciousness regarding climate change with reference to a particular Daily Mail article. Now I know that headlines are a means of grabbing the attention of readers, which translates into money for media outlets, so from that standpoint I can see why companies such as the Daily Mail run emotive headlines with LOADS OF BOLD TEXT AND ANGRY WORDS, however it must be said that such headlines contribute to the public being sceptical about the validity of the science of climate change. For example, in August this year the Daily Mail ran an article headlined Myth of Arctic meltdown: Stunning satellite images show summer ice cap is thicker and covers 1.7million square kilometres MORE than 2 years ago…despite Al Gore’s prediction it would be ICE-FREE by now’
(URL at bottom of post). This headline essentially says that not only were the predictions wrong (Al Gore said “could be”, not “would be” quoting research from the US Navy) but that the whole notion that sea ice extent in the Arctic is falling is false. Furthermore the headline indirectly casts a shadow of doubt on climate change through the mention that Al Gore was wrong, this is achieved through levering the fact that he is commonly viewed as the figurehead of the climate movement.

Now to provide an overview of why this headline is misleading is two ways:

Firstly, It gives no mention to the fact that the overall trend of sea ice extent is downwards (approx. 40% reduction between the late 1970s and present). Although it is true that we saw a rise in Arctic sea ice extent over the last couple of years this does not counter the fact that the overall trend is downwards. Important side note: within the climate system there are many factors in play meaning that it is very rare that changes in one part of the world (e.g. Sea ice in the Arctic) can be explained by a single factor alone. This means that it is expected that we see variability in the signal that cannot be explained by the primary driver of change. If that was unclear (which it almost certainly was) here is an analogy that should clear it up: when you arrive at the beach (assuming you haven’t checked the tide schedule) and look at the waves lapping up against the shore you have no idea as to whether the tide is coming in or out. It would indeed be foolish to suggest that just because the first wave you see goes further up the beach than the second that the tide is going out. It is only when you have waited at the beach for an hour or so that you can tell whether the tide is coming in or out. In this example, the wind is the factor that causes variability in the signal, whilst the movement of the moon is the factor that is driving the overall direction of the tide. Coming back to our Arctic example, we can now see that just because we saw a small rise in the amount of sea ice, it does not in any way mean that the ‘Arctic Meltdown’ is a myth.

The second way in which this headline is misleading is that it does not reflect the fact that within the article itself there are some references to some of the things I mentioned in bullet point 1, which provide some clarification on the matter. This is an issue because many people will only have the time/be bothered to read the headline and the summary bullet points below it, meaning that the message that they take away with them is the one in the headline.

I am not suggesting that by reading a single headline a lay person can be converted to a fire-breathing, frothing-at-the-mouth climate sceptic. What I am really trying to get at here is that the example that I used is one of a great number of articles coming out of the Daily Mail and similar outlets, which when being read by people on a daily/weekly/monthly basis can (probably often does) have the effect of casting doubt into people’s minds as to the reliability of climate projections and the reality of climate change. I must stress that although such blatantly misleading headlines do often come out of outlets like the Daily Mail, media sources such as the BBC also occasionally run headlines that are misrepresentative of the facts (I will get onto such examples in a later post)


Graph from the National Snow and Ice Data Center

I would like to stress that I know that there may be angles on some of the issues that I did not address and that there will be things that I say that people may not agree with. I must stress that this is a good thing and that I would like to encourage people to comment on any of the posts with opinions of their own on the matter.

Twitter: @ChristopherVos

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