Has the media worked out it’s a civet? Not yeti they haven’t…

So I couple of weeks ago I wrote about the ‘Oriental yeti‘ (itself redundant really) story in the media. What was, and remains, rather obviously a normal mammal (and many people have independently pinned down as most likely being a civet) suffering from mange. I noted that the story was pure hyperbole and built on not only the ignorance of the media spreading the story, but also their apparent refusal to do the obvious thing and actually ask someone who might know what it was. Instead, the opposite was effectively true as the phrase ‘scientists baffled’ did the rounds. They weren’t baffled, they simply weren’t asked.

I suggested that once the news broke that it was in fact not interesting at all, it would either be ignored, or the scientists might come in for further criticism for apparently not having got it right immediately. Well, 2 weeks have passed with no word from anyone. It should take only a cursory glance at the real animal to see what it is, and the alleged DNA tests that were to take place should really have been done by now, even if they were no ones’ priority. It was not said which lab said animal was going to be sent to or who would look at it, so it’s hard to find out what happened exactly, but since it is (i rather assume) the job or journalists to find things out as well as report on them, then it doesn’t look like anyone has been trying very hard to follow it up.

What I can say is that after a couple of weeks there has been no new news story on the animal since it initially broke. No follow ups have appeared anywhere that I can find. Good ‘ol Google is quite revealing – search for “Oriental Yeti” and you get more than 215 000 hits. Add ‘civet’ to that and you get less than 6000.

That’s quite a difference and really illustrates the power of the media to spread misinformation and poor science (however unwittingly or unintentionally).  Hundreds of thousands, if not millions or even tens of millions, of people will have seen the story about the baffled scientists and the incredible / bizarre new animal. A few tens of thousand might have heard that it’s just a mangy civet. Even if the media do know by now, they clearly aren’t in any hurry to follow this story up and publicise the fact that they clearly presented something very boring as very interesting, that they didn’t bother to (or apparently even consult) any actual scientists on the subject and had (if somewhat lightly) accused them of not working out what it was in the first place.

This of course massively distorts the information going out, but also the distribution of that information. You know, you just *know* that there will be people out there, years or even decades from now, saying “well they never worked out what that Chinese thing was, did they?”. They’ll assume that this has remained a mystery or was something new when it was commonplace. This distorts the scientific process, the work and attitudes of scientists to this work, and paints a very unflattering picture of their abilities.

People worked out what this was minutes after the story broke and 2 weeks on there has been no correction, no follow up, no new stories, no (dare i say it?) journalism. And that’s how the media cover science. Great eh?

7 Responses to “Has the media worked out it’s a civet? Not yeti they haven’t…”


  1. 1 Cunninglinguine 24/04/2010 at 12:17 pm

    Perhaps I’m biased, but it seems to me that UK papers are more likely to pull sensationalist nonsense like this than American papers are. However, I get the feeling that British publications are more aware of how silly they’re being, whereas Americans really are clueless. I’m reminded of an article I recently saw (originally a TV news story, but it got into the newspaper in the TV station’s market) about a dog whose ears made an “amazing” ringing noise. Lots of speculation about the dog picking up “radio frequencies” and whatnot. Of course, it was just suffering from a bad case of tinnitus, but I got a strong impression that the journalists really thought the dog was receiving radio transmissions.

    I still love the “deep sea alien” story featuring a giant isopod. I’m too lazy to check, but I think that story might have broken more than once.

    • 2 David Hone 24/04/2010 at 12:35 pm

      I really don’t know if it’s worse in the US or UK. Speaking to responsible and knowledgeable journalists from both, each claim their own parent is the worst offender. I see much more of it from the UK since I read that media more. In my experience the UK papers actually sensationalise less (they avoid the more out-there stories and excessive use of hyperbolic language and exclamation points and style) but the core of the non-story or the steamrollering of the actual science is no better than in the US.

      Short version, they are both pretty bad.

  2. 3 Ryan 24/04/2010 at 11:09 pm

    I was really glad to read this post, which I found because I have a google alert for “oriental yeti” after promises to follow this story to the bitter and inconclusive end on my podcast. The show is called “Science… sort of” and here’s a link to that specific episode: http://www.sciencesortof.com/2010/04/784/

    We make a lot of the same points you make here about frustration with the media portrayal of “baffled scientists” and how there will likely never be any follow-up. In the next episode we bring up the Civet possibility, and it’s a very strong possibility indeed. If only any of the photos had bothered to include scale Planned obfuscation or utter incompetence? I can’t say.

    If you give it a listen I’d love to hear your thoughts. I think the only way this kind of terrible reporting is exposed is by people with ambition outdoing it and collaborating against crappy press releases.

    • 4 David Hone 25/04/2010 at 9:37 am

      Hi Ryan, I’ll get to it now, thanks. A couple more points i never got round to making that are relevant here:

      1. The Times story was covered by ‘Times journalists’ which is largely shorthand for ‘whoever was on the newsdesk at 3am’. In other words, I don’t think a real reporter, and certainly not one of the science reporters ever saw the story. This feeds back into my point about non-experts working on such things and the marginalising of scientists. If this was an important political story it would have been covered by one of the political correspondents. Science, who cares?

      2. I have undergone some media training and one thing that was stressed to me is how to stretch a story to make the most of it. So for even X, you can get stories of “X next week”, “X tomorrow”, “we speak to the organiser of X”, “X today”, “X was yesterday”, “we interviewed people at X”, “X, a retrospect”. This is exactly the pattern of major evens like sports finals, elections, etc. So why then are journos not making the most of this with “Still no word on the yeti?”, “What could the yeti be?”, “The yeti – your views”. My suspicion is because they know it’s a busted flush and so have quietly swept it under the carpet.

    • 5 David Hone 25/04/2010 at 10:57 am

      Just had a listen, seems you came to most of the same conclusions as I did (both on the origin of the story and the terrible nature of the report). Feel free to get in touch if you want anything more.

      Dave


  1. 1 Tweets that mention Has the media worked out it’s a civet? Not yeti they haven’t… « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings -- Topsy.com Trackback on 25/04/2010 at 8:40 pm
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