Thursday, March 31, 2011

No, but thanks for asking

The general rule about question heds is "don't" -- at least, don't use them on stories about assertions, because they're likely to stack the deck in favor of the side you take in the hed. This one's a bit of an extreme case, because the story more or less directly answers the question, and the answer is "no":

Public health advocates and academics studying the issue agree that dyes do not appear to be the underlying cause of hyperactivity, but they say that the effects of dyes on some children is cause enough to ban the additives.

Hence the careful wording two grafs earlier, which should have caught the hed writer's (or the slot's) eye:

The FDA has so far said there is no proven relationship between food dyes and hyperactivity in most children. But the agency has agreed with many of the studies that say for "certain susceptible children," hyperactivity and other behavioral problems may be exacerbated by food dyes and other substances in food. Studies presented Wednesday backed that assertion.

There is an interesting story here -- or at least the hint of one. (If I had only one frontpage slot for the Big World Outside, I'd probably spend it on whichever part the Fractious Near East is closest to falling apart today, rather than on a procedure piece from deep in the administration, but that's just me.) One chunk of the bureaucracy is poised to recommend that a larger chunk of the bureaucracy do something (or nothing) about an identified problem. That's the news. The question of whether food dyes have some link to some cases of hyperactivity seems to be pretty well settled.

I'm not suggesting that journalism ought to be routinely taking the side of people whose career goal is making Froot Loops handsomer. But I would prefer it if we weren't misleading about the stuff we put on the front page, and the paragraph* that directly answers the question raised in the hed should have been a clue.

* Even if that paragraph doesn't make the front page (as in the illustration here). I do hope it's in the jump.

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