How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

The Myth of ‘Five Myths’

Some of us like learning new things. 

Some of us love telling other people that they’re wrong.

The seeming genius of The Washington Post’s Outlook section feature “Five Myths”: it gives the audience at the center of that Venn diagram the ammunition to do both.

No, “Five Myths” tells us, hijab is not just for men. No, Craigslist didn’t destroy newspapers. No, globalization isn’t the main driver of U.S. income inequality. No, Fox News does not drive the Republican Party rightward. No, no, no, no, no.

“Five Myths,” you might be getting the idea, is counterintuitive. It also has the trappings of authority: in a sea of media explainers written by journalists, “Five Myths” is always written by subject matter experts (often researchers) who reference evidence and data to substantiate their claims. 

Yet the structure of “Five Myths” (much like the Axios 400-word opinion structure I wrote about a few weeks ago) forces those SMEs to write like journalists — in manageable 150-200 word chunks that argue each myth down to the ground, instead of trying to sustain one argument over 850 words.

So we have counterintuitive, authoritative, readable content in a repeatable template designed to be memorable. This should work, right?

It often does for me. For example, after reading “Five Myths” for a few months, I know that Valentine’s Day wasn’t invented by Hallmark, that 4 percent of Americans believe lizard people control politics, and that the sun is actually not on fire. Don’t invite me to your next cocktail party.

However, besides being a trivia machine, “Five Myths” falls into all the traps of myth debunking — especially the Overkill Backfire Effect, which finds that hurling facts at people resistant to your argument usually hardens their minds to your argument instead of persuading them.

Many “Five Myths” pieces also repeat the myth (which often just reinforces it); attack myth holders’ worldviews (which puts them on the defensive); and offer simple facts instead of an alternative narrative (which loses, because narratives are stronger than facts for most people). 

Either the Post was unaware of the research on debunking, thought that research was bunk, or just set out to create a feature that undid its best intentions.

As it is, “Five Myths” is well-framed for audiences that like to think researchers are the last word on facts and science.

As we know, many audiences aren’t like that.

A lot of people might tell you that “Five Myths” is great. That you should do your own “Five Myths” for your organization.

They might be your audience. But they might not be.

Bottom line: Explainer content, which has become the dominant content marketing mode of research-driven organizations, isn’t neutral. How you frame it determines for whom it’s going to be effective.