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quality of science reporting; also timing of sailback species



Ahh, the "bad science reporting" thread is back. Having had some experience
in press matters, including involvement in a couple of HST press releases
(can't resist, check out our article in Nature on 5 September even if
Goldin doesn't make a statement), I find it sort of amazing that any
facts manage to make it through. Before anything gets into the news, it
must go through a whole chain of people with assorted priorities:

1) The scientists, who may feel it's newsworthy, may need some PR when
   coming up for promotion, or may have just bumped into a reporter
   who seemed vaguely interested.
2) The scientists' institution, who may like press exposure, whatever
   it says, especially when it's coming up to state budget-appropriations
   time.
3) The people, if any, who paid the bills (NSF, NASA). Sometimes it is
   even worse - in our case both the Space Telescope PR people and
   NASA HQ got their hands in the pie.
4) The reporter, whose agenda will include getting the maximum possible 
   number of byline stories published and getting interesting news out
   (these in some order...)

 and finally

5) the editor, who has final say over what gets printed. Locally this is
called the "Joe Six-Pack" test for public interest.

I have had amusing dances with reporters who wanted a specific quotation that
I wasn't about to give. As many of you have found, once you talk to the
press you really have very limited control over what finally comes out.
And we all know that the stories one has some independent knowledge
of are the only ones that go wrong...

This isn't a tirade - some of the sharpest people I've ever met have been
science reporters. Yet at many smaller outlets it's a part-time assignment
for folks who still working at the background. Recommendations? Cultivate
the local science journalists, get on their Rolodex even if it's gone
digital. That way, you might get an occasional call for background on
a story and contribute to improving the results for everybody.


And now back to topic - a question I've had for a good while. On the question
of what finbacks did with their sails. Many restorations show, say,
Dimetrodon and Edaphosaurus (and, I think, Spinosaurus and Ouranosaurus)
together. I can see the advantage to each of being mistaken for the other
at a distance. Does the fossil record give adequate evidence as to whether
such pairs were or were not contemporaries as well as roughly occupying
the same area?

Bill Keel
Astronomy, University of Alabama