Today a science story was born and killed in just hours: this morning science lifted our spirits with this finding that coffee made us live a little longer, Wonkblog's Sarah Kliff gets all smarty pants on us by debunking the finding with this contrarian headline: "No, drinking coffee probably won’t make you live longer." Instead of getting all bummed by Kliff's downer news, understand: for every study that comes out, a host of media outlets will report to one extreme, and then some smart guy or girl will come along and prove everyone wrong, digging into the study and using other research to show that the study does not say what we all hoped and dreamed. Then, that very study will come back full circle, acting as fodder for another ingenious reporter to debunk the next study about coffee and our health.
Studies are particularly susceptible to this type of sensationalization because all media outlets rely on press releases to both receive and understand new research. Sites like Science Daily and Eureka Alert post these press releases as soon as the embargo lifts. Since research and science is complicated, reporters rely on these sites not only to find the day's latest findings, but to understand what a 60 page write-up means for non-science people. University communications departments put the findings into nice digestible little sound-bites, complete with quotes from the researchers. And since they too want pick-up, they often slap their own snappy headline on the write-up. That coffee study, for example, had the following headline along with the National Institute of Health press release: "NIH study finds that coffee drinkers have lower risk of death." So that's where these news organizations get that idea in the first place. So, we see the following headlines: