Posts Tagged 'media'

No living relatives?

A week or two ago a short article appeared in The Times about the red panda. In it, the bold and quite ludicrous statement was made that the red panda is “not related to any other animal”. That would be news to anyone with any background in biology, but this kind of simple, yet gross, error is still commonplace.

I’m sure they simply meant that it had no close living relatives (which itself is debatable, since, well it’s not really in the same bracket of uniqueness as say an aardvark or platypus). However, the implication is that the red panda stands unique with no ancestry at all. While admittedly the use of ‘living’ hints at fossil pandas, it is being marked out as distinct and separate. It’s a fundamental implication of evolution that all species are ultimately, at some level, related and to suggest otherwise is clearly a nonsense.

Now I doubt too many creationists even spotted this, let alone made use of it, but it certainly doesn’t help trying to reach the public and pass on good science. But it’s the kind of error that can easily confuse people who don’t know better. It certainly sounds plausible and authoritative, and that’s just the kind of thing that people tend to accept, or if question, assume that it’s probably correct. It’s also the kind of basic error that’s so wrong, you wonder quite who wrote it, or just how limited their knowledge of biology must be.

OK, it’s not the first or last error of it’s kind and not even the most egregious. But really, it’s still pretty dreadful.

Why do dinosaurs attract such attention?

 It may seem like a trite observation but dinosaurs do seem to get an unusual amount of attention. Sure they were the dominant terrestrial clade for a good period of time, and they produced some weird and wonderful forms, and some of them were huge. But much as I love my dinosaurs, the attention they get does seem to be disproportionate to their importance and interest. You don’t see ammonites or calicotheres or fossil cetaceans or gorgonopsids attracting the same kind of attention.

The attention is double edged of course. While it means that dinosaurs do well in the literature and media, and museums obviously tend to go for great dinosaur displays, it does also attract the kind of interest you don’t want. Dinosaur researchers seem to have the near monopoly on members of the public finding ‘dinosaur bones’ in their backyard (it’s never a mammoth is it?) or tales of humor and horror of encounters with the public who are just a bit too into their dinosaurs. We get waaaay more than our fair share of ‘aquatic dinosaurs’ type-hypotheses and even academics that seem to want to dip into palaeontology always seem to head straight for the dinosaurs. And naturally the media knowing just how popular they are, are generally always ready to give a bit of coverage to the latest flawed efforts.

I’ve seen various explanations over the years but I’ve yet to come across anything backed by much evidence or that sounds overly convincing. It almost seems that dinosaurs are popular simply because they’ve always been popular and that has never faded and perhaps has even become self-fulfilling – with so much reporting on new finds, documentaries and museum exhibitions, they are always out there and being promoted. It’s clearly not going away anytime in the next decade or two, but for me at least, it’s far for clear quite how it’s been propagated so effectively for so long. Long may it continue of course, thought if a few more nutters want to start thinking more about trilobites and indricotheres (and less about tyrannosaurs) that would be good too.

Should journalists read the papers they are reporting on?

There does seem to have been a fair bit of debate going on around this point of late and it’s time for me to pitch in with all the force and folly of ignorance. Not that I am ignorant about the general mechanics of science journalism, and certainly not with research, but freely confess that I have not read or delved into the debate to any degree and am merely aware of it’s existence and have dipped a toe into the metaphorical waters by reading the odd Tweet or skimming a blog-post.

Obviously I’d strongly support the reading of a paper in general, hell it is what you are supposed to be reporting on after all and to be honest, I find it hard to even conceive why or how there could be much of a case for the ‘no’ side. However, there are two big things that I would hope would stack up massively on the ‘yes’ side. So significant are they in fact that (in perhaps my ignorance) I can’t see them easily being toppled at all.

First off is, yes, those bloody aquatic dinosaurs again. Yes it’s obviously nonsense to anyone who knows anything about palaeontology. However, while there are great science journalists out there with no science qualifications at all, and others who are well qualified in various branches of science (physics, medicine etc.) I don’t think it unreasonable to suggest that this might, conceptually, have got past even a decent science reporter. If you know little to nothing about dinosaurs, and you get a nicely plausible sounding argument apparently backed by some reasonable sounding evidence, especially off the back of a conversation with the author, you might think it’s reasonable. Any read of the ‘paper’ behind that though would dispel this pretty much instantly. It’s not a paper, and there’s no research there. Don’t read the paper, don’t spot the fake, cover nonsense as science, everyone loses. You look like a chump, non-science gets promoted as science, scientists get annoyed.

Secondly, it’s science by press release. This is also probably pretty rare, but has pretty much happened at least once when it comes to dinosaurs (as documented by Darren Naish) and there’s a steady stream of creationists and ID people happily claiming paper X or Y supports their position even if they had nothing to do with it. In essence, say in your press release what you didn’t in the paper, or couldn’t get past peer review, or just is part of a wider agenda and so use the paper as a springboard for those ideas to appear in the press. You can’t get it in the paper, but you can present it to the media (and thence the public) as if it is, and hey presto, get support and credit for your ideas. This is, of course, rather more insidious, as it can be backed by a proper paper in a proper journal. Again though, a simple reading of a paper (even if you do not have an in depth understanding of the complexities, it should be obvious whether or not a key part of the press release was even discussed in there) would soon turn this up. Again, don’t read the paper, don’t spot the exaggeration / problem, cover something not said as science, everyone loses. You look like a chump, something that shouldn’t gets promoted as science, scientists get annoyed.

As I say, these to me seem such huge possible problems that can pretty much only be solved by actually reading the paper (however briefly and however limited your expertise in the subject) that I really can’t understand why it isn’t the first thing to do. Get the press release or hear about the story, read it, read the paper. How can much else come first? So please people, do read the papers, if only to save you the embarrassment of making a much bigger mistake.

Traps for journalists to avoid

Quite some time ago I put together a post advising journalists on how to not screw up their coverage of palaeontology. It seemed to have mixed results but at least it’s out there. Recently a friend of mine asked me if I had any more general advice (knowing who to write clade names is not really much use in a story on physics) and I decided to have a crack at it. Some of what I had put first time around is still relevant, but here I though I would focus on how bad stories make it into the news – or rather stories that should never have been reported.

Any researcher will tell you that there are regular stories on the media that are built on nothing but hyperbole and BS. Now this is not necessarily the journalists fault – he’s chasing a good story and here is one on a plate. It sounds good, has enthusiastic backing from the researcher who is giving up their time to promote it, let’s run with it. So what’s wrong with it? Here are a few tell-tale warning signs.

 

Is there actually a proper paper? If this story is coming from a conference abstract, grant proposal, self-published manuscript, website etc. then simply leave it be. If this thing cannot get past peer review, or has not tried, it’s not even passed the most basic test of the scientific process. You’re simply asking to be taken in by a nutty idea that has simply slipped, unreviewed, into a conference (and quite possibly sneakily – the content to a talk can be quite different to the title). If there is at least a proper paper in a proper journal that’s a good start. (Note: even some ‘proper’ journals publish non-reviewed papers occasionally. It’s dropping away but this does happen).

 

Does the content of the paper match what you are being told? Again, a dishonest researcher can easily publish a paper on say ankylosaurs and talk about their taxonomy, but then push a press release about his amazing new hypothesis on how they could run at 50 mph backwards. So, read the press release and read the paper. Do the two match or are you being pushed something that’s not really supported or even mentioned in the supposed ‘groundbreaking’ research paper.

 

Is this really odd? For sure some amazing papers appear on occasion and can we well supported and taken to heart as it were. But if something looks very odd, and if it’s only appearing in a very short manuscript with little text and few figures or references then I’d be smelling a rat. This seems to good to be true, something this cool and new yet it can all be explained away in just a few hundred words and a drawing? Hmmmm. If so, call / email a few people. Ask around. And try to avoid regular collaborators of the person in question – their friends might well support them. But if you keep hearing “he said that? really?” then be careful. This might have got through peer-review but no-one seriously buys it.

 

Stick to these and you should be able to avoid a mountain of stupid and disingenuousness. Sure, some other guys are going to report on these stories and very occasionally you might miss out. But ultimately if your job is to inform the public you are doing them a far great disservice by putting out confident and supporting articles on utter nonsense that you are in occasionally missing something. If a major % of what you tell people is wrong (and let’s face it, these big, exciting stories are really appealing because they are so shocking or seemingly impossible) then you might as well not bother. So stick to the well-reviewed papers and make sure they match what you’re being sold. It’ll benefit you, the reader and the researcher.

On science journalism

Martin Robbins has a nice little write up on science journalism and it’s apparent fall from grace in favour of ‘science communication’. That is, those in the media who are simply reporting things, rather than actually digging into stories and doing some real investigation.

It’s well worth a read, but come back here afterwards as there are two points I’d raise in comment. First off, while I think this is generally true, there is some commentary to the effect that all these people are doing is imply communicating science. Well if that is all they are doing (as opposed to proper investigations and reports) then I think many would agree that they are terrible even at that. They seem to have reduced themselves to a fraction of their former identity and with a corresponding reduction in quality. As noted on here repeatedly, the inability of a great many places to even spell names properly, distinguish between major fields of biology, confuse birds with pterosaurs and the rest does not make for confidence in even a diminished role.

Secondly there are a few comments on the recent (and in my opinion, excellent) documentary on the state of science by the head of the Royal Society. This was given a little criticism on the grounds that it was presented by a scientist and not a journalist. As with Robbins, I can see the point. However, the other side of this is that too often we see documentaries, reports and especially the news that they give balance to a side that should have no say and credence to things that are not science, or are far from the mainstream (which brings to mind this quote again). I can see why people might not like to see a scientists just talking about the science (especially when it’s about the public perception of it) but if the alternative is to give balance to something that shouldn’t be there, then I think it’s by far the lesser of the evils.

 

I’m off to Zhucheng for a few days, so this might be the last post for a while. Depends on access really, though hopefully I’ll have some publishable things as a result of this trip….

And this works out how?

Thought my multifarious (and possibly nefarious) blogging and outreach activities I have built up a pretty good archive of dinosaur and associated taxon based stuff on the web. This is accompanied by what appears to be a fair following of readers who clearly like this stuff (and, dare I say it a bit of credibility as a researcher and communicator). I work hard at this stuff because I enjoy it and I think it is important, and I am a strong supporter of good scientific outreach.

It is then kinda troubling that twice in the last couple of years I have been approached by media people and effectively asked to promote their upcoming wares sight unseen. In both cases this pretty much consisted of them saying something like “We think the people who like your blog will like our stuff so please blog about it for us”. That, plus a bit about the show in question was pretty much it. (I should say that actually one was rather better than this in tone at least).

Now I can see why they are doing this – they want to reach their target audience and I am already reaching it. And it’s far easier for them to identify a few people like me and get me to do their work for free than it is for them to spend time and effort (and money) trying to advertise their wares. But while it is sort of flattering to get this kind of attention, it also shows a profound lack of respect on their part. They are basically asking me to all but shill myself to my readership about their product (without me knowing what it is) based on my years of graft and effort to get said readership in exchange for errr, well, nothing. What a deal! I really can’t wait to tell my readers about something that may not be any good on behalf of a media company (and in one case an advertising firm hired by the media company!) for no reason other than they asked.

Errr, no. Not playing. I think most science communication is good and I promote what I know and like where I can. But I am not doing this to save you the trouble of doing it yourself, and certainly not when you can afford it, and certainly not when I don’t know what it is, and absolutely not when it could be terrible or I fundamentally disagree with the premise or approach. And not for free either.

(And to qualify that, I’m not looking for money, but there is quid pro quo and if I’m in a position to get something which will help my projects and am under no obligation to say nice things about said venture, and when I am fully aware of the facts / content, then I’d at least consider it – I’m otherwise being asked to give up potentially quite a lot for absolutely nothing at all. If you want an exchange or partnership then by all means ask, but doing so when the entire thing is done and set to run gives me no input, not time to make a real decision, or know if the people I’m speaking to can be trusted etc.).

So yeah, I didn’t do either, and I was also rather insulted to even be asked in the manner in which I was. For some strange reason I sort of get the feeling that the media don’t quite get how to handle science and / or scientists. Now who would have thought that?

The framing of scientists

The other night I caught the second half of a documentary about science shows on the TV. It covered a bit of Sci-Fi and drama but mostly the actual science and technology shows and how they were presented, what they covered, how they were made and styled and so on. It was quite light and breezy but did include some classic clips and was a decent summary of the cultural attitude towards science and how it featured on television.

One feature was the use of quite a few talking heads of various researchers who are also well known as TV presenters or similar. One thing absolutely struck me however, so much so that I actually grabbed my camera and took some photos of it (so they are mostly not very good). And here they are. Let’s see if you can spot the ludicriously obvious and annoying trend.

Continue reading ‘The framing of scientists’

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.

Churnalism

Those of you with long memories or a major interest in the media aspects of the Musings might well remember this post in which I documented the recycling and re-recycling of the media coverage of a paper of mine. This process of the media lifting text (and especially press releases, but also each others’ stories) and simply passing them off as an actual article now commonly goes by the name ‘churnalism’. This is of course quite insidious, with savvy companies being able to plant their PR wholesale into mainstream outlets as ‘news’ and a further reduction in quality control and assessment on behalf of the hacks.

To track this, a group of people have got together to make a site to track churnalism and spot its spread. As a bit of (ironically) a PR stunt to launch this, they put out a few false stories of their own and watched as they spread through the media. The papers completely recycling huge chunks of what was obviously pre-written text, that was also based on a non-existent story in the first place. I’ll certainly be interested to see how well the science side of this deals with my next press release.

This really is important. For all the ever expanding use of blogs, twitter and online journals, most people get their science from the traditional media (or variations of it, like the websites of major journals / Reuters / BBC etc.). If the media aren’t actually writing stories and checking their sources then anything can get out there, regardless of accuracy. And this is just the recycling – sadly, but not surprisingly, the media continues to present supposedly scientific stories that have little or nothing in common with the actual findings of the research on which they are supposedly based. There are those calling for links between stories posted online and the original scientific articles which would help, but hardly stop the rot.

It’s easy to be angry on the internet and perhaps I am too much of an idealist. But really, surely the job of a reporter is to report the truth, as far as possible, and to explain the complex. Making up stories, passing off PR copy uncritically as your writing, and distorting and ignoring reality for your work is not journalism. It is, to my mind, bordering on fraud. It certainly wouldn’t fit even the loosest definition of reporting or journalism. When for science as a whole, this is probably our primary source of communication with the wider world (and if you follow the 2nd link, you’ll see even UK politicians are using these stories for their ‘facts’), that’s somewhere between disturbing, tragic, annoying and depression, with only a thin slick of black humour.

Why do they bother?

Over on Pterosaur.net Mark Witton has written a rather sad piece on the recent TV show that was laden with pterosaurs. Mark is rather critical of the science presented in the show and that is as predictable as it is annoying. What can only make it more frustrating is that he was one of the consultants for it and is even named in the credits.

Now I know it’s impossible for anyone to do something like this 100% accurately. For a start, some things are in conflict and you won’t even be able to create a pterosaur that one expert won’t like for the shape of the wings, or distribution of the pycnofibers or whatever. And we do understand that some things are exceptionally hard to animate or simply cost too much to do. Or deadlines can run out and leave things unfinished or with not enough time to do properly. All annoying, but understandable if not entirely acceptable. However, I do think it is fair to question exactly why they bother to hire professionals as consultants if they then don’t listen to them and fill the thing with absolutely basic errors.

Now I haven’t seen this but Mark and others have. They ignore all the early discoveries and apparently start historically with Dimorphodon conveniently ignoring the first half century of research. They feature Pterodaustro while saying that there were no filter feeding pterosaurs. This is basic stuff. You can find it out online in moments. The whole POINT of Pterosaur.net was to provide just this kind of information. If you knew nothing about pterosaurs at all you should be able to read the whole site in under and hour and come away with a reasonable understanding of pterosaur biology and science.

But despite having their own runners and researchers, and hiring researchers as consultants, they can’t get things right which are in the first few line of a damned Wikipedia article on the subject. Come ON. If you are going to get stuff like this wrong it’s going to look an awful lot like you hired people like Mark just to get a thin veneer of scientific respectability to your production safe in the knowledge that the scientists won’t complain, or if they do, no one will notice, but you might draw in a few more punters since you can apparently claim super accuracy and research. But surely the wouldn’t do that would they?

The basics of science communication

Recently I’ve been buried even more deeply in sci. comms. stuff than usual. Aside from the various media appearances I’ve made of late (and in addition to the visible ones, I’ve had a fair hand in a few others you’ve probably seen) I’ve also been writing up a proper piece of work on the actual process of science communication and it’s place. Obviously this is something dear to me – while I do like blogging, the reason I do things like the Musings, AAB, Pterosaur.net and others is that I want to communicate about science because I think it is important and valuable, and I moan about the media so often because they seem to hinder more than they help despite the latter apparently being their aim. Bearing that in mind, here are a few very brief points I would recommend to bear in mind when doing media work of any kind (aside from the obvious like being nice):

Always flag up and correct errors. People might well ignore your corrections (perhaps even justifiably in some cases) but people cannot learn if they don’t know they are wrong. Explain the problem and as best you can how to fix it, or ways around it.

Keep things simple and clear. Given that you never know who might read your quotes, or what was based on your ideas, you pretty much can’t underestimate your audience.

That said, don’t be afraid to aim high. If you build up carefully, explain the terms and use good analogies, you can cover some quite complex things effectively. People will learn and understand more than they expected and that’s great.

Prepare in advance as far as possible. If you’re just helping a journalist out with some background reading or answering some questions then take your time. If you are doing radio or TV then try to get the likely questions in advance. Plan your answers, make notes, find out what they do and don’t want. Practice if you can.

Try to avoid clichés so you don’t sound dull. But be aware that they can be powerful tools. Sure it’s boring to only talk about T.rex, but if you want to get the idea of a theropod across to a very broad audience in a few seconds then this will do it.

Try to give more than is required or asked for. Especially when advising people for articles rather than in interviews give more. You might well provide things they didn’t know they didn’t know and prompt new and better questions and lead things into interesting new areas.

Guest Post: When ‘Flesh’ was new: Art communicating palaeontological science ahead of science journalism

Today Jeff Liston gets to talk about his recent paper on a series of comics covering dinosaurs that appeared in the UK in the late seventies. One nice thing about science is that you can sometimes explore the history and cultural side of your research subjects as well as the scientific. Here Jeff dives into 2000 A.D. which, for those who don’t know, is a fairly well known comic label in the U.K. most famous for bringing the world Judge Dredd. Take it away Jeff:

Continue reading ‘Guest Post: When ‘Flesh’ was new: Art communicating palaeontological science ahead of science journalism’


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