Penultimate paragraph syndrome

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Penultimate paragraph syndrome refers to the practice, especially among tabloid newspapers, of running lengthy, rambling stories long on moral panic and false inference, and counterbalancing this with a single paragraph at the end which, with solid and credible scientific sources, dismisses the entire piece — but which will go almost entirely unnoticed.

There are two main reasons for this. More readers read just the headline than read the lead paragraph; more read the lead paragraph than read the first few paragraphs; and more read the first few paragraphs than the last few paragraphs. And those who do read that far may have trouble accepting it due to the cognitive dissonance brought on by the intended outrage created by the main body copy. Research into this sort of bias has shown that people who read contrary information may even see this as reinforcing their previous belief — and so placing it at the end sets up these clarifying remarks to actually back up the opinion of the article.


"Cancer jab"[edit]

For example, in the Daily Mail's headline "Cervical cancer jab left my 12-year-old daughter paralysed, says mother,"[1] replete with sob story, callout boxes, tables, photos of grieving family and so on, the scientific consensus is relegated to the penultimate paragraph: "A spokesman for the MHRA said: 'Guillain-Barré syndrome naturally occurs in the population. There is no good evidence to suggest that the Cervarix vaccine can cause it.'" And for "balance", this is immediately followed by "But Jackie Fletcher, of anti-vaccine organisation Jabs, said: 'We should halt the HPV vaccine programme in the UK until we get to the bottom of whether this poor girl's paralysis was caused by the vaccine or not.'"

Yup. The MHRA gets "balanced" by a spokesloon for an anti-vax pressure group, because the two obviously have comparable credibility. Because, after all, it's always the vaccines. Whatever it is, however unlikely, however strong the evidence that the vaccines are safe, it's always the vaccines.

You see the strategy here: a long article pulling out the stops to convince people of given unsubstantiated bullshit (U.B.), then a token paragraph from people who actually know what they're talking about (to avoid accusations of bias), immediately followed by someone espousing the U.B., who gets the last word.

Other examples[edit]

  • Any newspaper article with a headline about a Wikipedia article being "hacked" will acknowledge somewhere way down in the text that actually pretty much anyone can edit pretty much any Wikipedia article pretty much all the time. Here's an example from The Independent (UK) on the day of the United Kingdom general election, 2015.
  • The Chicago Tribune posts a headline "High school students reveal a link between screen time and ADHD". The article ends with an experienced child psychiatrist and ADHD specialist who says the link is not all that established, indicating the headline is overblown. "It’s attractive to think that somehow exposure to constantly-changing media information might somehow either make an adolescent inattentive or distractible," he said. "But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here."

See also[edit]