Some Words Matter More Than Others

Woodward and Bernstein
What would these two think of the Washington Post article?

In my field, we hire people with a very specific skill set. They need to know the subject matter, of course, and they need a range of technical abilities. They also need to be able to express a written thought.

The majority of people I work with will never get a byline. But their writing ability is still critical.


Because they will write occasional headlines and article summaries that appear in prominent places and serve as the gateway to our content. And if they can’t get the six or seven words in a headline right, nobody is going to see past the headline to find the hundreds or thousands of words that follow.

The words in the headline are more important. A good headline can draw readers in just as a bad one can send them scurrying. There is a whole other class of problematic headlines — those of the sensationalist variety. Designed to entice readers into consuming something that may or may not deliver on the promise the headline offers.

We try to stay away from those. I prefer honest/clever/interesting. I’d like to think our major news organizations take the same approach. Clearly, that is not always the case.

How else does the headline “Study: ‘Significant’ statistical link between mass murder and autism, brain injury” appear in The Washington Post, as it did two days ago? (Feel free to click. I’ve linked to the article in a way that will not improve the WaPo’s search standing.)

This headline is not from the Star. Not from the Weekly World News. Not from the National Enquirer.

It is from The Washington frigging Post.

The paper that once brought down the sitting President of the United States through dogged investigative reporting.

The headline is misleading. It is irresponsible. It is harmful in so many ways to our community. And those are the nicest things I can say about it.

It would be bad enough if the article that followed was a carefully researched piece that explained correlation is not causation, among many other cautionary bits of info that it needs to include. Sadly, the article, if possible, is even worse.

I’m no scientist, but it took me only a few paragraphs to start poking galaxy-sized holes in the “link” it purported to show. It amounted to little more than an exercise in Google searching and counting the results. It is about a research study that looked into various neurological impacts in those that have committed mass murders. The study points out the small sample size, the inability to draw conclusions based on its findings, etc. I don’t really have a problem with the study. I have a HUGE problem with the Washington Post’s writeup of the study, which fails to adequately point out any of those things, and then slaps a sensationalist headline on it that will lead people to make further incorrect assumptions about the members of our community who already have enough difficulty fitting in. But don’t take it from me. Below, I have linked to several well-done take-downs of the piece that are far better than anything I could produce.

But there is a story I want to share about this article, and I think it’s a poignant one.

Ryan overheard Veronica and I discussing the article last night. He did not hear the subject matter. I did not want to tell him about it. I couldn’t bear the thought of him trying to process it. We are just getting to the point where he is really starting to understand both the strengths and challenges of his diagnosis.

I explained that someone wrote a very poorly researched article in the newspaper. I mentioned that it relied on “wiki” sources. (Technically I should have said “-pedia” sources but I knew he’d recognize “Wikipedia.”)

And then he laughed out loud.

“You’re not allowed to use Wikipedia as a source!” he said.

That’s right. My seventh-grader, my seventh-grader on the autism spectrum, knows more than the author/editor of this particular article about the legitimacy of certain sources, based on the rules imposed by his middle school teachers. Maybe the Washington Post should hire HIM.

Ed Note: All of the following do a great job at deconstructing the WaPo article. I urge you to give them a read :

Autism Mass Murder Link? Washington Post Needs to Learn to FACT CHECK (Paula C. Durbin-Westby)

Serial Killers, Autism, The Washington Post And Divorce In Main … (John Elder Robison)

Of Autism, Murder, and Journos (Rant Against the Random)

Selling Fear (Jess, A Diary of a Mom)


5 thoughts on “Some Words Matter More Than Others

  1. Right?! My FOURTH grader, who has his own learning struggles and quirks, also knows that Wikipedia is not a valid “source”, as well. A 10 year old knows better, too. This WaPo ” article” is a farce…a damaging farce.


    1. I had hoped that the “Autism equals murderer”-thing was dead and buried but obviously not…
      This “fact” has been spread in Swedish newspapers a couple of years ago.
      It was a murderer that was said to have Aspergers and this tabloid used that in several articles…
      I’m tired of it!


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