Good and bad reporting

It does get boring simply recording and repeating mistakes made by those covering science inexpertly in the media, but when it happens so regularly and so confoundingly, it can be hard to avoid or resist. In this case I’ll prefix it with some better reporting.

Carl Zimmer is a consistently excellent science writer, and indeed concentrates on evolutionary biology. His blog is very good and his articles (whether for magazines or newspapers) are great and his books a good read while it is all accurate and informative. This time out he has a short review paper about communicating science and teaching (the whole thing is here). A couple of key quoters “Unfortunately, most reporters simply relayed hyperbolic quotes from their sources. They also demonstrated some deep misunderstandings about evolution” and “The number of skilled science writers who can report a story like this one with the proper skepticism is dwindling” bring me to the bad side once more.

The online arm of BBC news has sent a reporter out to a major dinosaur egg site in India. Naturally this is a local reporter and thus not a specialised science reporter. Nothing wrong with that, but one would also hope that a non-expert might just recognise their non-expert status and thus do a bit of fact checking or ask for some help. One can only assume not given what follows.

This is the offender “….Rajasaurus narmandensis or the regal reptile from Narmada. They say it belongs to the genus – subfamily – of the ferocious carnivore Tyrannosaurus Rex.”

OK, well first no italics, and then inconsistent / incorrect use of capitalisation in the species name. Not a good start and strongly suggests that the former name was cut and past from a document to ensure the spelling was correct and then T. rex was typed in incorrectly afterwards. However, the bizarre follow up is that confusion of genus and sub-family – the two are not synonymous obviously since, well, one’s a genus and one’s a subfamily. To make this still more odd, of course it’s not in the same genus as Tyrannosaurs, if it was, it would be a member of Tyrannosaurus! Rajasaurus is it’s own genus as you can tell because, well, it has a different generic name. And it’s not even a tyrannosaur, it’s an abelisaur. So somehow in 14 words two genera are confused, two families are confused and genus is made synonymous with subfamily and the names is written wrong and not italicised. Good work.

To cap it all off, the wonderful words “They say” is referring to scientists, thus squarely placing the blame on us for this mishmash of errors. Obviously this is not intended, but it doesn’t help when you are this wrong that you give clear credit to people who clearly did not say such a thing. Really, was it too hard to Google the actual name of the animal you are reporting on?

8 Responses to “Good and bad reporting”

  1. 1 Andy 12/05/2010 at 9:02 pm

    In a (weak) defense of the press, some of the press formatting standards are messed up. For instance, the AP does not italicize scientific names. And to top things off, most newspapers only use the term “Dr.” for physicians. Argh.

    • 2 David Hone 13/05/2010 at 8:20 am

      Yes I do know, but why is beyond me. No one ever knows about it except the agency / outlet in question so it can only add confusion as everyone is using different standards in different ways and no-one knows what they are or are supposed to be. And really, it’s not like they don’t use italics, so why not for taxonomic names?

  2. 3 Allen Hazen 13/05/2010 at 4:56 am

    In the paragraph before last, you spell “Tyrannosaurus” without the last “u”… twice. This strongly suggests that there was some cut and paste…


    But, yes, it is annoying the number of journalists who write about paleontological or zoological stories and seem not to have any idea about the distinction between order, family and so on.

    • 4 David Hone 13/05/2010 at 8:19 am

      Well I plead incompetence and not having any editors, sub-editors or proof-readers (which they do). And I’m not paid to do this either.

      Thanks, I’ll go fix it. I know it doesn’t help to make those errors when you’re criticising someone else, but still, I really don’t think it’s quite the same thing!

  3. 5 Allen Hazen 15/05/2010 at 2:51 pm

    Sorry– seeing a pair of spelling mistakes in a post criticizing someone else’s cut-and-paste writing was too much for me to resist! But I meant it as a friendly joke, not a condemnation. (Given the typos in my writing–even in things I have proof-read and sent off for publication– I wouldn’t be in a position to condemn anyway!)

    As for “editors, sub-editors and proof readers” — my impression is that there are fewer and fewer of them at work these days. (A very prestigious American university press published a biography a few years back in which no one had caught the error in describing the subject’s sister’s “pet door mouse”!) And in the news media, such editors as there are may be as ignorant of the conventions of taxonomy and zoological nomenclature as the reporters. I fear we’ve got to live with this sort of bad writing, and try to laugh at it. (Well, I ***tried*** to be humorous when I wrote a letter to the editor of the (Melbourne, Australia) “Age” pointing out that it wasn’t quite right to describe a plesiosaur as a “fossil fish,” but they must not have thought it was funny enough to publish.)

    • 6 David Hone 15/05/2010 at 4:45 pm

      No offence taken – I know I should do better. Though of course largely I was *not* criticising cut-and-past work. If they had, they might have made fewer mistakes….

      I agree that editors are ever thinner on the ground, which is no good thing. However, I do still maintain that while it doesn’thelp my cause, they are still paid to get this stuff right and communicate accurate info to te public and don’t. I’m not paid to rant here on my blog occasionally when I feel like it and often at sort notice. Plus of course, I actually try to correct my mistakes when people point them out….

  1. 1 More on science reporting « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 06/10/2010 at 8:14 pm
  2. 2 [Tweets] Science, data, avenir : 1001 liens sur le journalisme | Quand les singes prennent le thé Trackback on 03/11/2011 at 7:13 pm
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