Fish in a barrel – is it worth it?

I came across this little piece today and was tempted to leave a comment pointing out some of the many simple errors (which includes many of those decried recently). The names are not italicised, they seem happy to identify genera from just tracks and bizarrely place the Late Jurassic North American Brachiosaurus and Late Cretaceous Tyrannosaurus together in the UK.

However, there are three things to consider here which stayed my hand:

1. It’s quite likely the journalist will never read it, or if they do, will take anyhting from it and might well assume I’m being picky.

2. It takes a few minutes of my time and is it worth it (not much admittedly, and probably less than writing this post, but I’m thinking more generally about correcting articles online that this one specifically).

3. There are so many of these that this is a drop in the ocean.

Now on balance, I do think this is worth it (and tried but failed to leave a comment). But it does beg the question, are we better off trying to educate the public rather than the journos, is correcting every article point by point as they appear a worthwhile strategy, are be better off trying to get to the source than the output, and will be just annoy the readers and the writers with our apparent elitism / arrogance?

Discuss.

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11 Responses to “Fish in a barrel – is it worth it?”


  1. 1 David Stern 21/01/2010 at 5:30 pm

    Well this one is bizarre. I can imagine what happened. Press release said theropod and sauropod. Journalist thought “what the hell does that mean?”. Either then Googled it and came up with Brachiosaurus and Tyrannosaurus as examples or phoned someone who gave her those examples. I wouldn’t worry about stuff like italicization. People will just think that is picky. As to your recent list of points, I think some of those are tricky for people without a science background to understand – for example the likely importance of a single paper in the total picture and difficult to convey in an article that gets to the point.

    • 2 David Hone 21/01/2010 at 5:53 pm

      I suspect it may have been “These footptints could be from a tyrannosaurs and a brachiosaur” became “These are from Tyrannosaurs and Brahciosaurus”, going from possible to definite and family to genus.

      As for the italicisation, I know at one level it *is* a bit picky, but then we always ensure that proper names get capital letters etc. and often thy get subscripts right for things like H2o as well. It’s a part of correct grammar for science.

  2. 3 John Hutchinson 21/01/2010 at 5:45 pm

    Most media I’ve worked with have a policy of not italicizing genus names; not sure what the justification is (maybe it’s even technically hard to print them??) but they’ve said no when I’ve asked. But as science journalism goes, yeah it’s probably the most niggling of all concerns. The ~80my transposition of Tyrannosaurus is more egregious. And the Ardley quarry is Middle Jurassic, IIRC, so it’s all wrong…
    Very nice to hear they’re protecting it! I thought it was already doomed and buried under landfill!

    • 4 David Hone 21/01/2010 at 8:52 pm

      I can’t see how the modern media can have a problem with italics, everything’s done digitally and it’s not like the Times or Guardian never use them or don’t have fonts for them, and I was taught about this aged about 10 so it’s hardly an excuse that only biologists know about it. Bizarrely, one newspaper told me it was their policy to italicise species names, but not generic names. Eh? So you know about italics, you can and will do them, but you knowingl do them inconsistently and inaccurately. That’s like putting capitlas on town names and but country names – mad / weird / stupid.

  3. 5 CQC 22/01/2010 at 12:48 am

    re: italics — what can happen is that if a story gets syndicated, one outlet might carry the italics while another might not. The HTML tags can get ruined from one site to another, depending on how the software on each process text.

    • 6 David Hone 22/01/2010 at 8:19 am

      That’s true, but in my experience they only turn up in a very small number of cases, so I don’t think they are being lost so much as never being put in.

      • 7 CQC 22/01/2010 at 12:57 pm

        Well, also remember — the fact that HTML tags can get ruined from site to site means that the tags might pop up in unconcealed raw form in stories. It’s something I’ve seen happen, and the awkwardness of that happening might discourage news sites.

      • 8 David Hone 22/01/2010 at 1:17 pm

        I can imagine that in some cases, but it’s not true of original stories or the print media. And really, anyone who is running a news agency online who gets put off by raw HTML tags is probably in the wrong business…

  4. 9 IanC 22/01/2010 at 6:51 pm

    I’ve corrected a few palaeo things on the Guardian site, either through the comments section when it has been clear the journalist has been replying to comments or directly through emailing. The former seem more interested – usually when it is a science journalist who has written an article on the subject rather than rehashing a press release. On the one above – another error is the ‘first SSSI to be protected on geological features alone’ – I’m 99.9% certain that’s inaccurate too, Windsor Hill Quarry in the Mendips is a triple S I on the basis of Oligokyphus fossils and nothing else as far as I know, and that’s the only one I’ve ever had direct involvement with. Maybe it means the first because of footprints/trace fossils?

  5. 10 IanC 22/01/2010 at 6:55 pm

    Oh yeah – plenty of people on the Guardian website have been pleased especially when there have been semi-technical discussions as they like seeing the process of how science works and getting a better understanding of a story from the experts, so the last point of annoying the readers defintiely wasn’t happening. In contrast I remember some of the comments of one of Mike Taylors press releases on sauropods in the super soaraway sun website – I fear you would be accused of elitism on their for knowing what the hell you’re talking about!

    • 11 David Hone 22/01/2010 at 10:23 pm

      Interesting stuff, thanks Ian. My experience of correcting many people has generally been quite negative so it’s good to hear that people are taking it well, though equally I do think the Guardian are much better than most. It is promising that people are tkaing constructive criticism and corrections of accuracy well.


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