Today's Mail reports another such incident with a typically dramatic headline, pleading desperately with the authorities to stop covering shit up and tell us The Truth, dammit! "Now 300 dead birds fall from the sky in Alabama (how much longer can scientists keep saying this is normal?)", it seems to yell. Yeah, Mr Science Guy, how long are you gonna keep bullshitting us and admit it's time to start stocking up on shotguns and fortifying our basements?
The strange part is, though, the article is...actually fairly sensible. Y'know, for the Mail, I mean. Early in the piece, an entirely rational, non-apocalyptic, and deeply mundane explanation is offered for this particular incident:
It appears that the birds died of blunt force trauma - possibly from being hit by a truck, wildlife biologist Bill Gates told local news station WAFFThe article goes on to give a similar explanation for a recent incident in California. Flock of birds hit by truck. Not, perhaps, the start of the Rapture. DAILY MAIL REPORTER briefly mentions the excitement about the apparent spate of incidents, but then punctures such giddiness with a note of skepticism:
The reality, say biologists, is that these mass die-offs happen all the time and usually are unrelated.
Federal records show they happen on average every other day somewhere in North America. Usually, we don't notice them and don't try to link them to each other.
Indeed, most of the article is a pretty decent, if lightweight, debunking of the fuss around these animal deaths; the bottom line being that these things have always and will always happen, and we're just reporting them all of a sudden which makes it look like more. It's a little reminiscent of the Bridgend suicides, which were not particularly unusual statistically speaking but ended up portrayed as a massive sinister suicide pact. Or indeed the recent Implanon contraceptive jab story, where out-of-context absolute figures gave the impression that a massive amount of failures were occurring when in fact the failure rate was very low.
So what of that title? As we know, it's usually a sub-editor or someone other than the author who adds the title. If you'd given this article a title along the lines of "Animal deaths 'not unusual', say scientists", it would have made a lot more sense in the context of the article. But would people have read it? We live in an age of short attention spans where a shouty headline is what's needed to get hits, even if it's wildly misleading. I suppose the thing that bothers me about this case is that it's not just sensationalism; the headline seems to actively try and scorn the relatively sensible article beneath it in the name of cheap publicity. The person who wrote the article seems to think it's perfectly reasonable that "scientists keep saying this is normal", yet that ridiculous headline wants you to click on the article in the expectation finding that something deeper, something weirder, something perhaps conspiratorial or apocalyptic is going on. Why, I can only speculate, but it would hardly be surprising if the headline was purely designed to get a fairly mundane story Tweeted and Facebooked around the world by people who haven't really got any desire to read past the headline.