Lessons learned with the press

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.

10 Responses to “Lessons learned with the press”

  1. 1 Marc (Horridus) 12/04/2011 at 10:52 am

    Not telling you when you’re going to be quoted is bad practice indeed…especially for professional journalists.

    By the way – maybe one day we’ll finally see the death of “T-Rex”. One can only dream…

    • 2 David Hone 12/04/2011 at 11:11 am

      Yeah I wasn’t too happy with that, obviously.

      And I agree. In a couple of cases I saw that particular offender and changed it and explained why it was wrong only to see it come back later….

  2. 3 Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. 12/04/2011 at 2:23 pm

    All-in-all, I think that this particular “science in the media” event didn’t steer too far from the main message. Yes, some details were misunderstood and misreported, but ONLY details, not the primary results.

    • 4 David Hone 12/04/2011 at 2:35 pm

      Indeed Tom and that’s better than i have managed in the past. As ever though, it is frustrating given that all the mistakes were made entirely by the media. Only about 10 % of any given story deviated in any way from the press release / interview stuff and inevitably it was wrong. Can they not get any single detail right on their own and why must they guess / invent stuff?

      • 5 Marc Vincent 12/04/2011 at 9:34 pm

        Why must they guess/invent stuff? I like Ben Goldacre’s explanation – because newspaper journalists combine the pomposity and necessary arrogance to get along in that industry with the scientific illiteracy of those who have humanities degrees (cough, cough).

      • 6 David Hone 12/04/2011 at 9:41 pm

        Well in this case I think it’s my ‘friend’ ‘story colour’ (https://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com/2010/05/04/is-story-colur-at-the-expense-of-accuracy-ok/). They want it to be just a bit more exciting so they put in things that they assume are true or very likely. Since I wrote the paper they assume I found the bones or dug them up so they just say that. It’s a complete fiction.

      • 7 Marc Vincent 12/04/2011 at 9:48 pm

        I recently read a book chapter by a former Guardian science editor that effectively excused adding ‘colour’ and/or gross simplifications to science stories on the basis that journalists should not appear to be pompous to their audience. Completely absurd, and it annoyed me quite a lot (which I suppose should at least make my otherwise dismal dissertation a bit more interesting).

      • 8 David Hone 12/04/2011 at 9:58 pm

        So making stuff up is fine as long as it’s not important? If that’s their mentality then you can see how things go downhill from there.

        As I’ve argued before though, if they think that’s OK what else do they think is OK? And anyone who catches them in an incredibly minor lie will wonder what else they might be lying about / have screw up. It doesn’t serve them, or the story or the audience.

  3. 9 chris y 12/04/2011 at 6:14 pm

    By the way – maybe one day we’ll finally see the death of “T-Rex”.

    We did. Their lead guitarist drove his car into a tree at high speed. Unfortunately most journos are clearer about the glam rock bands of their youth than the niceties of taxonomic abbreviations. So we’ll probably have to wait until the generation that grew up in the 70s finally retire before that one goes for good.

  4. 10 Marc Vincent 12/04/2011 at 9:27 pm

    chris y – Alas, it’s referred to as “T-Rex” in Jurassic Park merchandise too. I don’t think we’ll see the back of this one for a long time yet!

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