The theropod behaviour paper that I have been boring you all with this last week or so has been the first time I have had decent control over the media access to my work and by extension the first time I have had a good idea of what happened to the original press release. I know what I sent to whom and when and thus can fairly easily track what happened afterwards to record the spread and exchange of information from that origin. In the past on the Musings I have targeted inaccuracies in news reports of scientific stories but without knowing the exact details of a story (I may have access to the press release but without knowing who it went to). Well, not so this time and as a result the pattern of reporting I can see is both interesting and informative both from understanding how the media works and knowing how to get your own work publicised.
First off, the nice. And there actually is lots of it for once. Not only did the paper get a load of media attention, but it was generally accurate and detailed. Most especially I was pleased that most sources cited the fact that we considered taphonomic artefacts to be a major caveat in our research and one quote of mine (“We conclude that, like modern predators, theropods preferentially hunted and ate juvenile animals leading to the absence of small, and especially young, dinosaurs in the fossil record. The traditional view of large theropods hunting the adults of large or giant dinosaur species is therefore considered unlikely and such events rare “) was used a lot to conclude articles despite it rather taking the edge of the more obvious headlines and being a little dry as a quote. This is promising and very nice to see, though there is more to the story that this, so let’s move onto what actually happened here.
OK, so the paper came out officially on the Lethaia website on the morning (UK time, late afternoon for me in China) of the Tuesday of last week. I had a press release ready and immediately sent it out to a bunch of editors, reporters and websites that I had contact details for. Oli Rauhut my coauthor in Germany also sent one out (in German) to various German news outlets and later a German and English version of this appeared on his University website and his own work site. (My release was based on his so they shared much in common, including some quotes). In my case I provided my contact details (e-mail, phone) and office hours (plus the time difference) and some other details (such as the full reference title and DOI etc.). I also stuck up my blog post at this point as an additional reference point.
I rapidly got an e-mail from a UK reporter who wanted to cover the paper and asked for a copy of it. He later tried to call me but as it was about 11 pm in Beijing I was (oddly enough) not in the office and missed the call. The report came out the next day and was the first and initially only one to do so, despite me having targeted over 20 organisations.
An important thing to recognise here is that a great deal of news reporting is reporting on news – that is, even if you are not first to a story, you can still report that story later. Thus even though some organisations had not been contacted by me, and other had been sent the press release and had ignored it, once it was out it *became* news and thus worthy of reporting. Secondly science like stories are great from this point of view as they have legs – many news stories loose their impact after a day or a few hours but not here. Since science stories do not advance as with say politics, it is as easy for a reporter to start a story with “A paper published yesterday / on Tuesday / this week” as it is “in a new paper released today” since the story will not change or develop over time. Thus science stories can really pick up and spread this way, so although 24 hours after my press release I had only one mention in one paper, after 48 hours this was more than five and another 24 hours later this was more than twenty. One week later it’s up to about fifty and I am still getting new e-mails about this.
This spreading though is especially interesting as between the original press release(s), the paper itself and the blog post (and later interviews) I know which quotes and which information came from where and thus which errors or changes have come in at which stage and which media have picked them up from which other. It is noticeable therefore that one can track errors from report to report as they originate in one and then are copied to others (I tracked a spelling mistake of Tyrannosaurus as Tyrannosaurs across three generations of articles, and each time it appeared in basically the same sentence in the second paragraph of the report, each, theoretically written by a different journalist).
Various inconsistencies and incongruencies crept in even from the first report (some of which I listed earlier this week) such as me apparently being German, Tyrannosaurus hunting Diplodocus, a quote from the press release being cited as being from the paper and so on. This really leads us into the discussion of the bad things going on here (inevitably) and despite my introduction here it was in equal parts satisfying and disappointing that pretty much all my assumptions about poor journalistic practice played out for a great many (but not all!) reports.
First off, few people bothered to even try and contact me or Oli, despite us both providing our details not only on the press release but in having prominent contact details on our respective websites and Oli at least being based in Europe. As such, despite the comprehensive nature of the press releases, few people check what was in there, or got extra information or checked their reports with us. Some at least tried with varying levels of success and of course those with tight deadlines have a tougher job. Still, one US reported called me at about 1 am (his time) to make sure he caught me at a good hour and a British reporter sent me his report to edit to my satisfaction.
Not only did they not contact us, but clearly few made use of the tools available. Mistakes like taking me for a German are poor ones – in the press releases I was specifically listed as British born and working in China, and of course the actual paper makes it quite clear I am not based in German research institute, and again there is a ton of information online. I am (the last time I was bored / shamelessly self interested enough to check) the first 5 hits on google for a search of ‘David Hone’, so I’m not hard to find. Add ‘dinosaurs / fossils / palaeontology’ and I’m the first 5 *pages* of hits. Only three people I know of found the blog post and one admitted that she hadn’t read all of it. Plenty of papers reported on the story in the third or fourth wave and clearly only took their information from earlier stories despite them having the original release that I had sent out directly to them days before. One reporter found from scratch (who was also the one who called me), the paper, the press release and the blog post and read them before he called and sent me his questions in advance. Naturally he wrote a long and detailed story with lots of extra quotes in it and produced one of the best reports I saw (no surprise really, but still nice to see).
This leads us onto the next point here. The press release was often regurgitated in very large and near complete chunks. Now that is part of what it is for of course, but equally I would hope that part of their job would be to give it a bit of a literary polish (since they are, you know, writers) and make it a bit more accessible to the public. If not, then the press might as well just publish the press release in full and save themselves a bunch of money on reporters. On the other had, most of them did add in new introductory paragraphs and needless to say this is where the errors mostly came in. So they either copied stuff without writing anything new, or wrote a couple of paragraphs that they got wrong. Really how hard is to check up on a couple of dinosaur facts (one could contact the authors for example) when already 80% of the article is written for you and you don’t have to read the paper itself? Remember that these are supposed to be not just journalists but science reporters and fact checking (especially from a published paper) should be first nature, let alone second nature and is hardly difficult or even especially time consuming, no matter the deadline.
There were some other largely unavoidables here such as the anthropomorphisation of various theropods (mostly tyrannosaurs) as being ‘cowardly’ or ‘chicken-hearted’. I’ll freely confess that they were unlikely to top our own dramatic headline of ‘baby killers’ which was used in abundance (and at least was accurate if rather extreme) and yes we *did* mention Jurassic Park in the release as an obvious hook both of which were picked up. Although we *didn’t* include tyrannosaurs beyond the most passing mention yet most reports were essentially “researcher say T.rex was…”, but overall these are pretty minor whinges and I have seen plenty worse and these are often the domain of the headline writers and editors as opposed to the journalists themselves.
This pattern and process should be of interest to those of you with media-friendly work going on (and this is about as media friendly as it gets, big theropods eating things) since you can know what to expect. Get your press release out early (ideally before the paper, but I didn’t know the publication date so had to wait for it to appear) and to as many people as possible. Ideally get it directly to journalists and not to editors or that is a potential barrier where it might get binned and not make it onto those who would be most interested. Ensure the release is accurate but uses simple language and has a good hook that normal people can pick up on or relate to (like Jurassic park, annoying though that may be), and have a clear summary and good quotes. Get one or two central points across and not over-burden things with minor details or caveats. Once it is out of your hands you will have limited control over things so make very effort to avoid mistakes that may arise (specifically mention that pterosaurs are not dinosaurs) and make yourself as available as possible to answer questions and respond to queries or requests.
No matter what you do, there will, sadly be plenty to gripe about. I do seem to have done better than most (or rather, better than many I have commented on before) though this has not stopped the odd horror from appearing and many of the gripes I have had before (no fact checking, copying of other reports etc.) have been rife. On the upside I had some excellent contact with some excellent writers who made every effort to learn about, understand, and accurately report on the work. I think it is no surprise or coincidence that these were better reports (both in terms of accuracy and detail, but also in ‘feel’) as well, plus of course they tended to be more different having been written rather than copied. There is much to complain about, but also there are some shining lights I have not seen before which is a great start.
More on this subject with respect to the opinions of the pubic on these reports has now been put up.
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