I spend a lot of time scrolling through RSS feeds of press releases looking for story ideas. Just a real lot. I treat it like a Magic Eye puzzle; I just sort of unfocus my eyes and scroll and wait for things to pop out at me. (That’s a free tip for you, aspiring journalists.)
Amid the sea of “This may be linked to this” and “Researchers identify boring thing, and P.S. it’s just in mice so don’t get too excited yet,” some press release writers, perhaps anticipating the Magic Eye technique, try to stand out by making the subject line a pun, or a pop culture reference, or just a weird and absolutely inscrutable phrase that you click on just to see what they could possibly be referring to.
An example of that last one from today:
And then when you click to expand:
“Why, Grandma, what big eyes you have!” Though similar in appearance, the hidden cause of those big eyes Little Red Riding Hood notices in Grimms’ fairy tale has nothing to do with the hidden cause of enlarged eyeballs in buphthalmia, a genetic mechanism causing this devastating eye disease which has now been uncovered...
This depresses me on so many levels. I will try to list them for you:
- The bait-and-switch of beloved childhood fairy tale morphing into “devastating eye disease.”
- The thought process that led the writer to be like “Maybe people will care about this devastating eye disease if we trivialize it by comparing it to a fictional child-eating wolf.”
- The implication that people could not possibly care otherwise.
- “Big eyes!” totally got me to click.
- These scientists are doing important and helpful research for the people with this condition, but incremental updates on the genetics of really specific conditions are not that interesting to a mainstream audience. Still, publicists have to try to get journalists interested in them anyway. They know that journalists are always hunting for new and exciting studies, so they’re trying to sparkle up a lugnut—a crucial, but unexciting piece of the machine. Both parties are culpable in the existence of “Big eyes!” and its ilk.
Anyway, I feel a little bad about calling out this press release in particular. Trust me when I say that this happens all the time, and just as I don’t blame journalists for using clickbait headlines to try to get the indifferent Internet to pay attention to their hard work, I don’t blame the people trying to help scientists get attention for theirs. It’s just that these wacky press releases are an amusing yet depressing symptom of the imbalance between the pace at which science happens and the pace at which we want answers, or at least entertainment.