Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Myth Is as Good as a Mile

Myths, myths, myths. At least three times, I've written about articles or op-eds that used the rhetorical device of a "myth list" to present a point of view. (See my past posts on Five Myths About Greener Energy, Five Myths About Health Care Reform and an article that dealt with three myths about changes to the health care status quo.)

I admit it seems like a good way to set up an argument, but it has a little problem: It can be easily misunderstood, letting the reader come away with the myths reinforced instead of debunked.

Here's a recent article in this format from the Star Tribune's op-ed page:

Op-ed layout with the headline that reads 4 Myths about the H1N1 Flu Vaccine
The headline is pretty clear, but then you scan the text, and the myths are the things that visually jump out at you:

Article with bold subheads 1 Swine flue vaccine is unsafe, 2 The vaccine is untested, 3 The vaccine contains a dangerous adjuvant, 4 The vaccine has a dangerous preservative
The myths are in nice, bold type, and instead of seeming like false statements, they appear to be affirmative statements, you know, as if they are... true.

This reminds me of the research that shows you can't fight misinformation by saying the misinformation is not true, because every time you repeat the misinformation you reinforce it. Obama's can't say "I'm not a Muslim" and have any good effect; Richard Nixon couldn't say "I am not a crook," either.

And it's hard to write about a bunch of myths without making the myths sound true.

1 comment:

David Steinlicht said...

I saw a similar article somewhere else and thought the same thing.

It's the designer's fault. Each statement should be labeled as untrue. It's not enough that the overall story is labeled "Myths." Labeling each statement is repetitive -- but helpful. It should read:

1. False: The swine flu vaccine is unsafe.

2. False: The vaccine is untested.

3. False: The vaccine . . .