On a number of occasions, I’ve documented my fights with the media over press releases ands coverage of my work (as well as plenty of general commentary on the successes and failures of the media). However, despite a few minor issues, the Zhuchengtyrannus media circus has overall been very positive with lots of positive and more importantly, accurate, stories. Much of the credit can go to the UCD press office for their sterling work in reaching a huge number of important people, and of course the taxon itself was always going to be of interest. This is, after all, T. rex Mk II. (Well, III thanks to Tarbosaurus, but you get the idea).
Still, there were things that could have gone better and some that went very well and are worthy of further comment (if only to help fill up another blog post on this thing).
What went right?
We had checked and seen that indeed Cretaceous Research do publish advanced online papers so the minute we got confirmation that the paper was accepted we worked on getting the media package ready (press release, images etc.). Obviously the life reconstruction had been done well in advance and was ready and beautiful which helped push the story. While this was still sprung on us we were ready and able to react quickly.
In previous efforts I had noticed a tendency for places to cut off the artists name from images leaving them uncredited. Here I deliberately placed Bob Nicholls’ name high up on the image that it could not simply be cropped out, but would have to be manipulated, making it more likely it would be kept in and indeed it was.
I could see the tyrannosaur / tyrannosaurine issue being a huge problem, and we actually took the detailed route by using the more specific and technical latter term. I was pleased to note this was reproduced faithfully and accurately in most reports.
What went wrong?
The fact that the embargo for the story ended on the 1st of April meant we should in hindsight have perhaps put in a note to say this wasn’t a joke. I don’t think anyone did think of it in this way, but we could have cleared up the ambiguity in advance.
Similarly in the past I’ve always made it clear that I’m British working in another country but for once we skipped over that detail and inevitably I was reported as being Irish by a number of outlets.
One problem was new to me and that was having to field several calls from news sources. There’s always a chance you’re going to say the wrong thing no matter how well you know the material or rehearsed you are. In this case what caused problems (as far as I was concerned) is that I didn’t know I was providing quotes! I was asked to explain a few things and then suddenly saw myself quoted in articles. Had I known I was going to be quoted, I’d have thought more about my answers, and made it clear what could and could not be used. Now at least I’m forewarned for next time.
Finally there’s the unfathomable and unaccountable general insertion of utter nonsense, falsehoods and guesswork which accompanies most write-ups. Like birds descending from tyrannosaurs, me having spent three years digging in Shandong, me finding the bones and on and on and on. It was especially annoying that one of the more egregiously awful stories seemed to be the main focus of linking, that is, it seemed to be the one that most people linked to or sourced from which was a frustration of course. None of this you can really do anything about though since it’s done away from you and with no reference to your materials or quotes.
In short, on average things went well. The mistakes we made were relatively small and had only a limited impact on the overall quality of the coverage. Whereas the things we got right had a significant impact – we got a good release out, in as good time as possible and some important details survived intact in the vast majority of cases.