Media tracking

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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26 Responses to “Media tracking”

  1. 1 Nathan Myers 13/08/2009 at 12:59 pm

    It would seem fair to reveal the name and publication of the good reporter, the one who actually called you to check on facts. It might give his career a boost. Anyway you should probably write a pleasant note to his editors and publisher. That Brit who sent you copy to check, though, might be drummed out of the corps if you reveal his name; I gather journalists consider that somehow terribly unprofessional (although maybe only for interviews?).

    I wonder if it would help matters to note, in the press release, a URL specifically labeled as the place to look for updates to the story, and where you could call out (along with other juicy details you think of too late) misspellings and mistakes that had cropped up, to stop them propagating. Reporters are conditioned to want to see updates, especially if they might help to make up for being late with the story.

  2. 2 David Hone 13/08/2009 at 4:33 pm

    I did contact several people point out errors and changes that would have helped but understandably most would not or could not change things that were already published.

    Detailing all of the quibble would take forever and they are pretty obvious if you know the science and read the pieces online and just detailing the general bad practice is I think enough (and it’s not like I haven’t done it before).

    Charles Choi was responsible for the piece that appeared in several places, most notably MSNBC. Matt Kaplan did the piece in the National Geographic (incidentally where Charles covered the pterosaur story). I should make it clear that Matt wanted me to edit my own quotes and any scientific errors in his story rather than the story itself – he welcomed constructive (and rather by default here, expert) criticism and correction on the piece rather than rewriting.

    • 3 Nathan Myers 13/08/2009 at 5:18 pm

      Thank you for the names.

      Contacting reporters who have already messed up is, as you note, pointless, and furthermore ultimately just as frustrating for the reporter as it is for you; what are they supposed to do about it? It’s been printed.

      An “updates” URL is solely for the benefit of reporters who haven’t yet published. It exists so they won’t repeat the errors of those they’re cribbing from. If the errors were as obvious to them as to you, the downline reporters wouldn’t be repeating them verbatim. Detailing general bad practice here doesn’t reach them because they don’t look here, and anyway they aren’t equipped to apply general advice.

      Specific corrections noted in a place they actually look can make a difference in the text they hand over to their editor before deadline. The corrections posted on it might look like:

      1. It’s spelled “Tyrannnosaurus”, not “Tyrannosaurs”.

      2. It’s abbreviated “T. rex”, not “T-rex”, in italics if you can.

      3. I’m British, not German. I work in China.

      Do you really think any particular reporter ought to try to look at the actual paper? If you suggested it, they would laugh at you. They’re not equipped to read it, and they know it. For most, if it’s not in the press release, and not on the updates page, it doesn’t exist, full stop.

  3. 5 Peter Falkingham 13/08/2009 at 6:35 pm

    I’ve also had good dealings with Charles Choi, Dave… He wrote an article on something I did for NERC, and he bothered to ring me and ask me questions personally. And again, it was /his/ article that then got spread over the web left right and centre.. And just as you say, errors started creeping in and propagating. Once ‘archaeology’ replaced ‘palaeontology’ in the title, my heart sank and a little part of me died 🙂

    • 6 David Hone 14/08/2009 at 4:29 pm

      Here Charles was one of the last to get in on the act so actually his stuff did not get the chance to be altered but stood alone and different (and I would say better). However it is certainly interesting (and depressing) to see others spotting the same pattern.

  4. 7 Christophe Thill 14/08/2009 at 5:59 pm

    Well, since you know that whole portions of the press release will be directly copied in the articles, it seems logical to write them so that they can easily be. After all, you want to control what will be written about the work you’ve done. So the best way is to write it yourself. I’m sorry to say, but the exceprt you quote (“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 “) doesn’t look especially media-friendly to me. The sentences are too long, their structure is not simple; as for the choice of words like “preferentially…”

    I’m not criticizing, I hope it’s clear! But you just know in advance what a journalist will do with this (and it’s something you probably won’t like!)

    • 8 David Hone 14/08/2009 at 11:30 pm

      I knew that was not a great quote but it was stuck in at the last minute as a summary which I hoped would at least give pause to the hack that read it. As it happened it was picked up and used which was a pleasant surprise. I know full well they copy largesections of the press releases (though before this event I had no idea just how much and how often) but even so the errors slipped into the few lines they *did* write without reference to my piece. As Peter notes, they will even change ‘palaeontologist’ to ‘archaeologist’ because presumably they think they know better so there is little hope much of the time for dinosaurs vs pterosaurs and ancestors vs sister taxa (both of which I have tracked in the press on here before).

      This was my first real self-written and self released press piece and it did better than I expected. I know there are still lessons to learn but doing it yourself like this allows you to learn them. I’ll be better equipped next time!

  5. 9 Nathan Myers 15/08/2009 at 3:26 am

    before this event I had no idea just how much and how often

    Actually, Dave, I wrote and told you, several times, that that was exactly what they would do. (You have sound opinions about what a reporter’s job is, yet somehow they care more for their news editor’s opinion.) Changing “palaeontologist” to “archaeologist”, though, is just as likely to have been done by their copy editor. Reporters complain as bitterly about that as you do.

    Next time, if you like, I would be happy to do the job of rewriting your paragraphs into newspaper register.

    • 10 David Hone 15/08/2009 at 9:11 am

      Yes I know that, I myself have said it several times on here. The words point to the fact that even this was a surprise and that here I was able to document it more accurately than before, not that I did not expect it. Please stop taking me for someone who does not know what he is doing or does not understand the media. As I have wearily pointed out on here before to you I have written pieces for the press and various magazines, done TV and radio stuff (in addition to having friends and colleagues who work in those fields) and more as well as having documented numerous times myself the failings of the media. I have a ton of experience here and have no illusions about the media and how they work.

      As noted repeatedly on Bad Science which I reference often on here, there is pretty much nothing that cannot be distorted by the media at a moments notice and no matter what intervention put forward by researchers at any point in the story’s history. I think that here I have actually done a good job and largely got my point across accurately to the press and this was a pleasant surprise despite my poor expectations and not because of high ones that you seem to imply I hold.

  6. 11 Homeboy 15/08/2009 at 10:09 am

    Dr. Hone,

    Several years ago, I read about a quantitative analysis which treated documents in a manner similar to DNA. Multiple versions of a document could be analyzed to produce a family tree showing how the document evolved.

    The above links are about similar research.

    I think you could find someone who would be very interested in analyzing the evolution of your press release.

    (I have no expertise in this area.)



    • 12 David Hone 15/08/2009 at 10:17 am

      Hi Robert, that does sound interesting. I do know about the various software out there that can be used to track plagarism and I imagine this is a spin-off from that. It certainly would be an interesting thing to try and I’d welcome it being done though frankly I just don’t have the time (or motivation to be honest) to do it. Obviously I am in a good position to do it in the sense that I do know what happened, but a great many of the records are in other languages and there are at least three independent origins for about 25 stories in English so it might be a rather small data set. A bigger story that goes ’round the world’ and runs to hundreds of copies might be a much better bet here, though obviously I don’t have one of them. I’ll certainly bear it in mind in the future.

      Thanks, Dave

      • 13 iayork 18/08/2009 at 1:17 am

        Besides plagiarism, another interesting comparison might be those infinitely-reforwarded emails (often urban legends) that you get from your Aunt Clarice. You can often track back these stories through multiple variations, and can pick up switches at every level — spellings get changed, both for better and worse; details morph, with, say, names of ships switching to more plausible versions of time; and every so often there is a large-scale mutation in which the fundamental story is still recognizable but is entirely re-written, often to fit a new situation.

  7. 14 Charles Choi 15/08/2009 at 2:29 pm

    Hi all — this is Charles Choi, one of the reporters David refers to in the above post. Thanks to those who forwarded me this link — you’ve all said kind words.

    So I thought I might weigh in. I agree heartily with David on most points. I think it makes perfect sense that David wants to track how reporters notice and interpret his work. I’ve been interviewed myself, and it’s an experience I think all journalists should undergo — makes you sympathetic to others, when you see how your words and life can get spun. David’s trained to meet the standards of the scientific world, but like most of us, only rarely has experience dealing with the public, and wants to know how to make himself clear. I thought I could clarify items that might be a bit uncertain.

    I began reporting on this story after an editor sent me the press release from Ludwig Maximilian University and assigned the article to me. The press release was already out in the public domain, and I usually wouldn’t pitch such an item since other outlets had written already written about it. However, that editor noted the only outlets that had picked it up until then were British tabloids, and thus thought it was still fresh enough for our primarily U.S. audience.

    I purposely stayed away from the British stories when I first began reporting — I didn’t want to inadvertently copy them, and tabloid stories can be filled with inaccuracies I didn’t want to perpetuate. I managed to track down the Lethaia paper in question — it’s not a journal I normally read, but I get complimentary press access to all of Elsevier’s journals, so it was a trivial matter for me to download it. A simple Google search also revealed everything David had written about it beforehand, as well as the Smithsonian blog item. In other words, I tried to track down as much firsthand information as possible — information straight from the researchers. Press releases can be filled with inaccuracies or distortions as well, and often leave out juicy details, so it’s best to go to the horse’s mouth.

    To address an item made in the comments section — it is pro forma for a professional science journalist to give a paper a look if there is time. Now it is impossible for science journalists to be experts in every field the beat has to offer — even if a journalist has a PhD or was an all-but-the-dissertation in, say, molecular biology, that doesn’t necessarily translate to expertise in archaeology or botany or cosmology or particle physics or etc. Still, we all read papers, because even those of us without science training — which is about half of us, I’d say — can at least fake our way through. (And I’m referring here to professional science journalists, those who specialize in science writing, not a general assignment reporter who just gets tossed a science story. It’s the GA reporters who often cause the most egregious errors, altho pro sci journalists are not immune to this.) Professional science journalists are given access to papers by journals expressly for the purpose of avoiding misunderstandings in reporting — indeed, they are often given papers days before they are published in the public domain, so they have time to fully digest the papers and circulate them around to independent sources for comment.

    The “we conclude that, like modern predators…” line is a bit dry. Also, it’s unfortunate, but for lay audiences, “theropods” might as well be a nonsense word — maybe “tyrannosaurs and other theropods” would work better. It’s a good summation quote, tho, and it can get chopped up into pieces that fit well in places in the story that need them.

    Sometimes sending the press release to journalists works, sometimes it doesn’t. I can’t comment either way in this case, since I wasn’t a recipient — rather, we got it from Eurekalert or AlphaGalileo, which are press release services that specialize in science. Providing contact info is always a wise idea.

    One can definitely track quotes and errors from press release to press release, and from story to story. This does not reflect all too well on journalists, but the operative word in news is “new,” and journalists often want to hurry as much as possible (sometimes to their detriment, hence errors or lack of interviews). No one really likes using quotes from press releases if one can directly interview sources, but they’re good failsafes — sometimes reporters aren’t able to interview the person in question (the scientists are in Paraguay, or don’t speak the journalist’s language, etc.), or the press release quote is phrased better than anything the journalist got during the interview, or the journalist, frankly, is lazy.

    Yes, press releases are often regurgitated in very large and near complete chunks. This is mostly laziness coupled with the ceaseless journalistic drive to get news out as quickly as possible. The practice is frowned upon by the better journalists, but it happens.

    re: sending stories for sources to read — this is a complex issue. Yes, normally, this is completely forbidden in journalism, since journalists aren’t supposed to be mouthpieces for sources — handing stories over for approval smacks too much of propaganda tactics. However, science journalism is widely considered a special case. I know of many science journalists who do it, altho none of us like to talk about it. As mentioned, even the best-educated science journalist can’t be knowledgeable in every field, and errors can unintentionally crop up in any story, so yes, stories are sometimes emailed to scientists for fact-checking. There are a number of caveats and exceptions to this practice. Sometimes journalists under deadline pressure just don’t have time to wait to hear back from sources. Nearly all the time, journalists take these changes as suggestions — they only go for corrections and revisions of facts and phrasing, and not other changes, say to writing style. (Some scientists can be very bossy and rewrite large parts of the story as they see fit — these scientists, ironically, often seem to introduce grammatical errors into the story.) And some journalists just refuse to do it on the ethical grounds I mentioned above. Personally, I don’t see too many ethical problems with the practice — scientists usually stick to correcting facts, and not any of the nasty business that ruins the practice with regards to other kinds of sources.

    I generally try and write out as much of the story as possible before interviews — it’s trivial to amend these stories as additional material, and it’s a good way to figure out what questions need to be asked to fill in holes in the stories. It makes a lot of sense to include as many facts as possible when doing this — the blog post David mentioned and the paper were naturally quite helpful in this regard.

    Anthropomorphizations — guilty as charged. It’s hard not to write dramatically when it comes to dinosaurs (and fields such as outer space, etc.), and as long as one does not get too carried away, it feels more like poetic license than a bad thing.

    re: David’s advice for other scientists who might find themselves in similar situations to David’s — yes, get the press releases out as soon as possible, make them accurate, use simple language, and provide good hooks (this helps them hook in readers), have a good summary and simple, lay-language-friendly quotes. Including minor details and caveats is ok, but these will likely not make their way into the story, or potentially get blown out of proportion by dimwits. Yes, make every effort to avoid mistakes that might arise, and make yourself as available as possible. (Hard for scientists to do in the summer, I understand, but still.) I would add that you should make your paper available to journalists for download.

    re: getting press releases to reporters and not editors — eh, it can work both ways. I’d just get it to both, and not prefer one to the other.

    re: pointing out errors and changes after stories appear in print — do so! News outlets usually try and run corrections — either in the next issue of the newspaper or magazine if we’re talking about print, or just by revising the text if online.

    I’m not sure an updates URL is a great idea, because once you start writing or once the story starts getting bumped from editor to editor, you don’t always want to run back and check the URL repeatedly, especially if you’re working on one or two or five other stories at the same time.

    re: Peter — arrgh, that archaeology/paleontology error — I can honestly say that was not mine, but my editor’s, and she fully realized she made a boneheaded mistake when I emailed her in a panic after I noticed it. It’s important to note that not all errors or distortions are the reporter’s fault — many can get introduced down the production line by numerous editors, although to be fair they’re typically the ones who catch errors, not propagate them.

    re: asking scientists to write press releases in ways so journalists can copy them wholesale — I think that’s a bit much to expect from scientists. Scientists should be expected to just do good science — it’s fantastic if they’re also great communicators, but that’s really the job of science writers.

    • 15 David Hone 15/08/2009 at 6:00 pm

      Wow, thanks for all of that Charles. I’m pleased to see my assessments were largely correct of various aspects of this.One thing I especially want to note that I did not talk about is the press release writing and distribution. In my case here at the IVPP we have no press office / PR machine etc. that many universities and institutes do and thus I wrote and (rather more unusually) sent out the release myself. It did therfore only go to people who I was already in touch with or whose contact details I could easily obtain and while I was keen to promote my research I was not keen to spend days hunting down the e-mail addresses of editors and reporters to gain one extra person who would likely just bin the report.

      It came up recently on Bad Science that often researchers are bad at writing press releases. However, in my experience much of this is normally done by press offices who can be good at writing something journalists want to read and report on, but not necessarily containing that which the scientists wanted said or how. As such I would add that one should make sure that you are happy with whatever leaves the office and especially any quotes that might be attributed to you.

      Finally though I didn’t note it at the time at least one reporter refused to make changes that I flagged to him since apparently it was a ‘policy’. Odd and unhelpful in my opinion.

      Thanks for all of this excellent insider information Charles it is excellent to have it laid out like this. I like to think with my media work and training (I’ve been on some “media for scientists” type courses) I have a better than average knowledge of the methods and patterns but this adds to it still further. Thanks for taking the time to put all this up.

  8. 16 Veronica Abbass 19/08/2009 at 3:50 am

    My favourite party of this post is

    “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)”

    I am particularly frustrated today because I have been trying to communicate (by email) with people in English departments in post-secondary institutions and the responses have been less than unsatisfactorily communicated. This is especially frustrating because “they are, you know, writers.”

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