A guide for journalists reporting on dinosaur stories

Since I spend so much time berating the media for their terrible coverage of dinosaur-related stories I thought I should try and add a little positivity / advice rather than *just* slating them. In that light then, here are a few errors that seem to be made time after time after time and should be really easy to fix. Obviously I doubt I have many, if any, readers who are also science journalists (of the kind that make lots of basic errors, many are very good) but a) you never know your luck and b) I might just use this in the future when I next send out a press release to try and get things straight. This is, I am sure, very obvious to many, but these kinds of errors occur too often for it to be chance alone, so a few pointers may prove helpful (and will likely be of interest to other readers too).

Put the story in the context of the current evidence

Few discoveries are made in isolation. There is a ton of evidence, fossils, and papers already out there and the subject is likely much discussed already. Sure the new paper is interesting and exciting (or you wouldn’t be covering it) but don’t pretend that this is groundbreaking or original when in fact it demonstrates an idea first floated a century ago. The new study might be critical, but it’s unlikely to be that new and ignoring previous work is unfair.

Don’t confuse new evidence / analysis / specimens with a new species

A new specimen does not necessarily mean a new species, and a new species does not necessarily mean a new specimen. Names and identities get changed with taxonomic revisions and new species can be discovered in old bones. Anchiornis is a good case in point, the Nature paper that got all the media coverage was based around two new specimens, but every newspaper described it as a new species. But it had been named 6 months previously and was not new. The specimens were new and the evidence of the exact age was new, but not the taxon.

Don’t misuse the term ‘proof’ and absolutes in general

Science, and especially palaeontology, does not deal in absolutes. Outside of maths, you’ll be hard pressed to find a researcher who says that ‘X proves Y’, or ‘X shows Y must be wrong’ etc. Don’t do it. Yes, you need to make things clear to the readers, but the phrase ‘provides convincing evidence that’ is only a little longer than ‘proves that’ and is far more accurate.

Don’t assume that evidence for X is also evidence against Y

The new paper might show that say, Tyrannosaurs was a good predator, but this does not mean that it was not a scavenger. Biological systems are complex and few things operate in one way alone. Unless the researchers have done the work to test that the other possibilities are false, don’t assume that evidence for X rules out the other possibilities. We can hold things with our hands, but we also signal with them, and use them to make tools, and to help us feed, and climb etc.

Don’t generate a false controversy

Someone will likely disagree with what is being said in the new paper and researchers are understandably sceptical of new ideas. They might think it’s a stroke of genius, but are still likely to be lukewarm if asked for a quote until they have dug through all the details and had time to mull it over, discuss it with colleagues and check some more papers. Don’t take this as a sign that it’s wrong or bad science and don’t make it look out to be that way. Certainly don’t deliberately hunt down contradictory quotes and generate strawmen for others to pull down. Science is about consensus NOT balance, so seeking out an alternative point of view does not necessarily make things better (and indeed rarely does). Most important of all, don’t portray all researchers as flip-flops just because two different groups disagree on a point. It means they disagree and are trying to thrash out a controversial point, not that the whole of science is going ‘Yes! No, I mean yes. Or not’. This is of course made worse by saying that each side has ‘proof’.

Don’t confuse species and genera (or other groups) and get the capitalisation / italics right

Tyrannosaurus is a genus, rex the species. Both should be in italics, but only the generic name should be capitalised. You can reduce this to T.rex but the capitalisation and italics should remain the same. If we discover a new close relative of Tyrannosaurus called Newosaurus this is a new genus. It is a new genus of tyrannosaur not a new Tyrannosaurus. If we discover a new Tyrannosaurus species, it would be named as Tyrannosaurus newspecies.

Don’t talk about ancestors

In palaeontology we don’t deal with ancestors, but with ‘nearest relatives’. The point is a technical and complex one, but to use the term ‘ancestor’ is, essentially, incorrect so just don’t do it. It’s an understandable (if unhelpful) error at times, but it’s massively overused and in my experience frustrates the scientists and genuinely confused the public as they always seem to assume that it’s an *immediate* ancestor.

Do google / research even the basics

Research progresses, often very quickly, and ideas and data can become out of date quite quickly. You don’t have to be up-to-the-minute accurate and most paleontologists will forgive you missing out something like Amphicoelias when talking about the ‘biggest’ dinosaurs but announcing that Diplodocus was the biggest dinosaur when there are probably a dozen bigger taxa and other have been known since the early 1900s is not so good. Too many people who probably really should have known better have talked about swimming duckbills, lake-dwelling sauropods, tail-dragging tyrannosaurs, and called pterosaurs ‘flying dinosaurs’ too often. Some of these ideas were out of date 50 years ago or more, so repeating them is pretty bad. And when checking, pick something credible and don’t just lift things from wikipedia or the first site you come across.

Don’t anthropomorphise

At some level of course animals want to do things, but they run on instinct, not conciousness. Tyrannosaurus did not ‘want’ or ‘like’ to hunt. It needed to in order to feed and survive. Similarly, while it’s fine conversationally, the rise of creationism and ID means that terms like ‘believe’ and  ‘designed’ should be avoided. I say both often in the context of science but when I say ‘I believe Tyrannosaurus was a predator’ what I mean is that I have read and assessed the evidence and in my opinion, this is the best explanation of the data available. Even if a researcher uses this in a quote, think about changing it (with their permission and knowledge) to something like ‘the evidence supports’ or ‘I think that’ or similar. Equally the word ‘design’ can and should be swapped for the more scientific and evolutionary relevant ‘adapted’ (‘these teeth are well adapted for cutting’ rather than ‘designed for cutting’).

There are plenty more things I’d like to see (like getting the actual taxon names right, the authors’ country of origin, not speaking to the cranks, etc.) but these are, I hope, relatively quick and simple to change or more often simply not do, that would not affect the style or tone of any article, but would significantly improve the accuracy of the report. As such I’d hope these would not be considered difficult or complex points to heed.

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18 Responses to “A guide for journalists reporting on dinosaur stories”

  1. 1 dziban303 19/01/2010 at 8:59 am

    Well said.

    Imagine if every discipline had a FAQ For Journalists.

    Hmph. Smells like a business opportunity.

  2. 2 220mya 19/01/2010 at 9:02 am

    Also, proof-read what you write, so you avoid writing things like “lack-dwelling sauropods” and “A new specimens”

    • 3 David Hone 19/01/2010 at 9:36 am

      Damn it. I did check it, twice. Thanks for that, I’ll go fix it. Though I *would* note that journalists do have proof-readers and editors to help out and I dont’….

  3. 4 Mike Taylor 19/01/2010 at 4:03 pm

    “Science, and especially palaeontology, does not deal in absolutes.”

    Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

  4. 6 Horridus 25/01/2010 at 1:44 am

    I’m a follower of this blog but haven’t commented so far – so first of all, well done and thanks for keeping us laymen informed. I felt that I should point out that there is often a difference between the material that a journalist submits and what eventually gets printed, due to various editorial interferences. There’s no way that this can excuse all the nonsense that’s printed – far from it – but in some cases, the copy is almost certainly ‘dumbed down’ due to an editor’s patronising view of their readership, or to save space. Notice that broadsheet science coverage is better than that in tabloids, albeit often only marginally, due to (puke) catering to certain demographics.

    Still, in that case one could equally aim this tirade at editors and media proprietors…and you wouldn’t be alone in complaining about slipping media standards.

    • 7 David Hone 25/01/2010 at 8:05 am

      Hi there. I certainly have targeted editors in the past (https://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com/2008/06/23/editors-vs-writers/) and they get their share in other places. However, I think I have good reason to target the writer and I do try to hit target that I can aim at by virtue of being aware of the situation (i know about journalists, I don’t know much about editors).

      I have obviously spoken to a bunch of science writers and the better ones seem to think the problem is with other writers and not the editors. Secondly I have seen lots of things badly mangled by writers that were shown to me before they reached the editors so I know that much blame can be proportioned there. Some errors are certainly the fault of the writers (the editor is not going to ‘edit’ the name or a person, place or species so when it’s spelled wrong you can guess that it’s not the editor’s fault). Finally, if the editor want’s to dumb down or change things then the writer can always defend his work and at least try to insist on accuracy / detail.

      I’ve no doubt at all that the entire system is to blame but my experience and information suggests that the worst of it is front loaded from the journalists. As long as their name and their name alone appears at the top of the article, I’ll hold them responsible.

      Glad you like the blog and thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. 8 Badsciencemonk 24/05/2010 at 11:47 pm

    Interesting blog

    Give my regards to Alice

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