Potentially Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister and Donald Trump president. Potentially particles colliding in the science world’s answer to the circle line could inadvertently open up a world-consuming black hole. Potentially Katie Hopkins could someday make a good point.
Everything is potential. When we are told, on the basis of a speculative connection between CJD and Alzheimer’s on half of the neurological subjects of a sample total of 8, that the transmission of Alzheimer’s is ‘potentially concerning’ a degree of scepticism should be a no-brainer. Instead Thursday’s headlines –across the press spectrum- thundered about an Alzheimer’s bombshell. Tentative observations were ‘expert findings’ and a modest call for further research was packaged as a ‘shock claim’- despite the study’s author and the Chief Medical Officer stating that there is no cause for concern.
More than any other aspect of journalism medical reporting seems to have free reign to spin stories to the far side of fantasy. The equivalent to the ‘surgery causes Alzheimer’s’ finding would be an economist deducing a rise in retail consumption on the basis that people in September wear more clothes than they did in August. A combination of our ignorance of science and the inchoate hypochondria of modern living conspire to trigger an unquestioning panic.
The real panic, however, is not with diseased scalpels but the game of shock brinkmanship that the papers have adopted in their efforts to remain relevant. True, health scares based on dubious science are a much flogged staple of the rag trade; and, as the MMR vaccine controversy demonstrated their effect on public behaviour can be worrying. Yet where once this was the domain of alarmist titles with looney tune approaches to public policy the Alzheimer’s story was carried by virtually all papers, even reaching the venerable heights of the FT. While the latter’s coverage was infinitely more measured than the word from the gutter, the very fact of the article’s inclusion demonstrated that the pull of sensation is something that no editor can afford to avoid.
In the clickbait war between journalism and online channels, desperate measures by the traditional press is unsurprising. Yet on this occasion it was the denigrated digital that smelt the analogue rat and ensured that this was one contagion story that didn’t go viral. Buzzfeed was first off the mark with a succinct myth-buster which was soon picked up by social media. A number of mental health charities used their channels to push our statements to confirm that there is no solid evidence of Alzheimer’s being infectious and parodies are trending on twitter of other absurd links to the disease. It was perhaps down to the refusal of new media to fall into line with the tabloid scaremongering that led to the absence of the story from today’s papers.
As the election outcome demonstrates newspapers have the potential to shape some quarters of public opinion. I doubt, however, that many editors would settle for being potentially influential.