Penultimate Paragraph Syndrome

The Penultimate paragraph syndrome refers to the scaremongering practice, especially rife among British 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. The popular explanation is that attention spans have dwindled during recent years and therefore a certain percentage of readers read the headline and nothing else. A percentage of the rest will read as far as the lead paragraph, and so on. Eventually only a few that will even bother to read the last few paragraphs.

The problem is dat people who are most at risk of delusion only read the first couple of sentence and see this as reinforcing their previous belief. Additionally, 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.
For example, in the Daily Mail's headline "Cervical cancer jab left my 12-year-old daughter paralysed, says mother,"[1] complete with 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.'"

Some have argued that the Penultimate Paragraph Syndrome is a misnomer because its not really the penultimate paragraph that is te problem. It's the entire text that is at fault, except the penultimate paragraph.

Related to the Penultimate Paragraph Syndrome is Betteridge's Law of Headlines, which states that: any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word "No." The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.

[1] Daily Mail: Cervical cancer jab left my 12-year-old daughter paralysed, says mother – December 14, 2008. See here.

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