Another dot in the blogosphere?

Irresponsible clickbait

Posted on: May 7, 2021

How do you balance the need to create a headline good enough to get readers to click through and getting an important message across? These should not be on opposite sides, but they are in a CNA news article.

This was the tweeted headline from CNA (screenshot below, in case the original tweet is deleted).

The actual article reported this:

First, ask yourself: How many people bother to click through, i.e., read beyond the headline?

Next, if readers do not read the article, they are left with the information that there are at least 2,700 reports of adverse vaccination effects among 2.2 million doses.

The potential impact of the headline is the attention paid to the 2,700 reaction cases. This creates or reinforces fear that fuels vaccination hesitancy. 

How many then learn that the adverse effects were classified into not-so adverse (common reactions) and actually adverse (serious reactions)?  The latter was represented by 95 cases.

That number of cases is 0.004% of doses administered (95/2,213,888 x 100). The article stated 0.04% which is 10 times higher. The same article has a table which reports the correct figure of 0.004%. The percentage in the main body of the text and the table do not match.

Finally, how many rationalise that 0.004% is a very small incident rate? How low is this chance? You have a 1 in 25,000 random chance getting a severe reaction to vaccination.

How unlikely is 1 in 25,000? I found a summary site of statistics maintained by someone who mined NSC and CDC data. If we were in the USA in 2002, each person had a 1 in 25,000 chance of being murdered with a gun.

If that is hard to relate to, then you get my point. The tiny chance and the large number of doses are difficult to rationalise. Suffice to say that the chance of reacting severely to the vaccination (or being gunned down) is very small.

Think of it this way: If you were in the USA and not terribly afraid that you were going to get shot, you should not be afraid that you are going to react severely to the vaccination.

The issue that writers and editors of newspaper headlines do not seem to understand is human psychology. People tend to focus on the part of the headline that screamed “reports of suspected adverse effects”. The headline also includes the initialism HSA, Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority. So it might come across as a warning. The number of cases could have been 27 or 270, but the focus would have been on the authority and the adversity.

The messaging is important. Recipients have a right to know the possible side effects of the vaccination. The HSA was transparent with its statistics. However, the news agency was irresponsible with the clickbait headline and the wrong calculated figure of the severe cases in the main body of its text.

2 Responses to "Irresponsible clickbait"

Murray Bourne: Well said. Journalists tend to join the profession because they are numberphobes, resulting in this. Unfortunately, in the attention economy, clickbait will survive.



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