Is this the worst media coverage of pterosaurs ever?

No, that’s not hyperbole. We really have a stinker here. Allow me to elaborate: as some of you may be aware, a paper came out this week covering a pterosaur trace fossil of an animal landing – in other words, it came into land after a flight and then walked off. I don’t often cover new papers on here, and don’t always cover even my own so no marks are lost for having missed it. Anyway, this got some coverage in the media and I was quoted in several stories about the paper. Here is one of the originals and it’s worth reading so that you can get some context for later.

Then I found this online. Oh dear. For all my recent complaints about the media, hopefully at least some of you will have noted that I did have some nice things to say about the stories in general and emphasised that while many are woefully bad, some stories are very good. This is genuinely one of the worst excesses I have seen of media screw-ups. I can only conclude that they read one of the original stories and then tried to change it so that it looked a bit different (since I wasn’t quoted on the press release they must have taken my quotes from a piece by Charles Choi, the only person I spoke to about this).

In doing so they fell for every classic error I complain about. They copy stuff indiscriminately, they get things wrong, they misattribute things and add errors and here, even contradictions. It really is horrendous, and, to cap it all, it was written by the sites science editor! Their only possible defence is that they are a software website, but for me this would be pitiful – if you report enough on science to require a titled editor you should get it right. Hell, if you are doing *anything* like this you should get it right (or very nearly right, everyone makes mistakes and you can’t always go into the detail you want). This is another level though, and allow me to elaborate more.

Let’s start with the title which includes ‘preferred’. Occasional anthropomorphism aside, this implies a choice was made – pterosaurs went for their runways as a matter of choice. Not true and not stated anywhere by anyone. Underneath it says “The conclusion belongs to a new scientific study” which to me is just poor English as well as being generally incorrect since the study doesn’t say this. In any case, how would you know? – this is the first example and you cannot extrapolate for a data point of one. Incidentally the English is dodgy throughout and I suspect the author is a non-native speaker and while this may not be his fault as such, if you are writing for an English-language website then I have little sympathy.

Next there is the top left with the image, one of Mark Witton’s that they have used without permission (so I understand) and certainly without credit (though I’ll admit I’m not sure why it was on Wikicommons). If you click on it there is a bit of text that says that pterosaurs only flew when they had to, though who knows where they got that from and that it is eating a lizard which is of course a sauropod.

The first word of the article is “Archaeologists”. This one AGAIN. Palaeontologists are not archaeologists. Not are they “Anthropologists” which also turns up later on. The word palaeontologist never turns up at all! Still in the same sentence we are told that pterosaurs are the ancestors of birds. No, no, no, no and no. And no. They then say that the track is very rare which should be obvious given that it is the first one ever discovered, good investigative journalism there. Still in the opening paragraph we get ‘proto-birds’ and then a horribly mangled sentence of “did not leave a massive imprint on the ground, such as the largest dinosaurs that ever roamed the Earth, the 50-tonne sauropods, did, LiveScience reports” horribly mangling my own quote while entertainingly revealing where they cribbed all this stuff from.

Moving on we are told that they have “two-foot-long feet” which will be a big surprise as the wingspan was probably only around 3 feet. Were they wearing skis? I think they mean the *track* is two feet long, but this is not what they say.

Now we get a stunning line where they seem to manage to think that the term pterosaur refers to a species (or think they are all the same size) while calling them flying lizards. So birds are pterosaurs which are lizards. Awesome! In the following ‘anthropologist’ sentence we are told that this track shows a take off and landing trace which is wrong, they only land. The original report they quote from even says that scientists now want to find a take-off trace as well which they clearly missed.

The next bit is fine, presumably because they copied it nearly wholesale and thus failed to screw anything up including lifting quotes directly. However, not to worry as in the last paragraph they manage to say that pterosaurs had great flight control and flight capabilities which rather contradicts their opening gambit that they only flew when necessary.

So there you have it, an absolute litany of crass basic errors that have been introduced for no apparent reason despite the whole thing being an obvious cut-and-paste hatchet job of an article which they even cite as the source. Quotes mangled, image appropriated, contradictions introduced and basic misunderstandings abound. This really is absolutely horrible. The only obvious thing I expect was the ‘pterosaurs are dinosaurs’ schtick which they avoided only by calling them birds and lizards. Genius. Good work lads, now, please never, ever write anything about science ever again. Because if you can’t even get this kind of stuff right, then I can only pray that you never have to cover string theory.

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14 Responses to “Is this the worst media coverage of pterosaurs ever?”


  1. 1 Tor Bertin 22/08/2009 at 11:03 am

    That’s so surreal…

    Lucky it’s not entirely terrible–they’ve provided a fantastic example of how *not* to cover science! So reporters, take note.

  2. 2 Michael 22/08/2009 at 12:04 pm

    That article is truly horrible. The idiocy of it has literally left me speachless.

  3. 3 Michael 22/08/2009 at 12:05 pm

    The news article, not your post Dave! ;-)

  4. 4 Steve O'C 22/08/2009 at 6:56 pm

    I noticed that you posted a comment on the news article in question. I think it’s great that you tried to correct the article. More Palaeo people should do this.

    I once tried to comment on a Daily Mail article. They just edited my comment; it made it sound like I was criticizing the scientists.

    I dare people to look at this article by the Sun. It should come with a health warning.

    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article1087903.ece

    Tried to comment about the article, especially about the picture (Aghhh) but my comment didn’t get past moderation. :(

    (ps. the Witton Image is on the Wiki Commons because it was published in PLOS ONE. Images published there are on a ‘Wiki compatible licence’.
    http://www.plosone.org/static/license.action )

    • 5 David Hone 22/08/2009 at 8:57 pm

      Thanks for that Steve. I’m not sure I did try to connect in one sense, that was a pretty harsh comment I left (though I did try to correct them more than just say they were wrong). Sadly that is pretty common though that comments get changed, removed or ignored and i have had trouble in the past trying to get people to recognise their errors. Thanks for the update on the PLOS issue – I was not so sure myself but another pterosaur colleague had commented to me via e-mail that he was none too impressed that Mark had not even been recognised (which is a fair point really, it might be free use but you can at least credit the artwork).

      • 6 Matt Martyniuk 27/08/2009 at 7:23 am

        Anything published in PLOS One does fall under the Creative Commons licensing scheme, but those licenses DO require attribution of the author or artist, along with a note or quick link about the CC licensing. Not listing Mark’s name when displaying the image and not citing the license is a violation of the original license.

  5. 7 Nathan Myers 23/08/2009 at 3:12 pm

    the wingspan was probably only around 3 feet.

    When I look at the original article, I find the figure outlining the tracks, with a scale marker identified as a half meter that about matches the length of the rear footprints, not including the claw marks. A flying creature with 50 cm feet and a meter wingspan would seem quite an anomaly.

    What have I misunderstood?

  6. 9 David Raikow 25/08/2009 at 2:17 am

    Yeah, it’s pretty bad coverage, but somehow I’m not surprised in the age of dying news and standards. I had a TV anchor call zebra mussels “harmful fish” during the banter folowing a story on my reserach.

    Shameless plug:

    http://rivercontinua.wordpress.com/2009/03/30/media-relations-or-i-was-a-teenage-b-roll-talking-head/

  7. 10 Kilian Hekhuis 25/08/2009 at 6:38 pm

    I stayed very close to Crayssac this summer, and almost got to see the site (known as “pterosaur beach”, appearently). Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to actually visit.

  8. 11 Tor Bertin 15/09/2009 at 5:56 am

    http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/science/09/14/china.fossils.returned/index.html

    Apparently they returned the 60 million year old dinosaur eggs.

  9. 12 Claude 10/08/2014 at 4:35 pm

    You will be pleased to know that the article has been “corrected”. They use the word “paleontologist” and the size has been corrected to a two foot wingspan, not a two foot footprint. So it’s not quite as bad now.
    They kept the title, so that makes me happy. I’m tickled at the thought of pterosaurs circling their favorite landing strip, waiting their turn for final approach. There’s probably a sordes in a tree acting as the air controller.
    “Jurassic 7 heavy, you’re cleared to land on trackway 3.”


  1. 1 Pterosaurs in the media « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 16/10/2009 at 11:17 am
  2. 2 More for the journos « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 13/03/2010 at 8:56 am

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