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News media, Bolivian Tracks & Eggs



I've been watching the story unfold in all-too-familiar fashion:  a superb
scientific story being mangled by the media.  Scant regard for facts and
figures, but plenty of journalistic imagination, invention,
guesswork...along with possibilities, qualified estimates and
half-understood comments converted to "facts".  And, you can bet, that
somewhere in there you'll find that good old verbal filler - "Scientists
believe...".  It's a miracle that ANY science ever gets to the public in
undistorted form.

Nearly everyone who has commented on this list about those Bolivian dinosaur
eggs and tracks seems to have been aware that the press reports are
inaccurate. No one seems surprised that the media got it wrong... and I
suspect that no one will be surprised when the media go on getting it wrong.

Only a couple of weeks ago I spent a whole morning with local (Australian)
media representatives, discussing ways to improve their presentation of
science to the public.  It was largely wasted effort.  All they really
wanted was for scientists to pre-digest their scientific material,
presenting it to journalists in convenient ready-to-use form.  To put it
bluntly, the average media outlet wants a story stripped of irritating
"details" (often a synonym for "facts") but with "public appeal" writ large
and plain.

Not one of them was willing to concede that the media might improve THEIR
practices in dealing with scientists.  I suggested, for example, that they
might do a bit of homework beforehand (perhaps reading a bit of background
literature in the taxi?) or that they might do a bit of checking afterwards
(e.g. verifying units of measurement - cm or km?).  Reactions ranged from
horror to frank disbelief.

One senior reporter, from a national daily, makes it a point never to call
back and check through her story.  Once it's written, it is "her"
intellectual property and - as a point of professional honour - she will not
countenance any outsider "censoring" it in any way (even if the "facts" do
happen to be wrong).   Yet (and I find this remarkable!) she was happy to
hand over "her" story to sub-editors, who trimmed it to size and invented
the headline (however silly or inappropriate that might be).  She expected -
nay, demanded - that reporters in her section follow the same practices.
She maintained that her editor-in-chief would "go ballistic" if he
discovered that any of his reporters were sending out pre-publication
material for checking and verification.  (The only exceptions were
potentially sensitive stories that needed approval by legal advisors.)
Others maintained that there simply "wasn't time" to re-check names, facts
and figures before going to press.

(Unfortunately those sorts of attitudes are widespread.  There are a few
reporters, however, who do have the common sense and courtesy to re-check
their material before unloading it on to the public.  Somehow they do manage
to find time to do a really professional job before going to press.  But, as
a scientist, you can locate them, and work with them, only by trial and error.)

So, frankly, I find it amazing that Reuters should have issued a correction: 

>In August 12 LA PAZ, Bolivia, story headlined ``Two dinosaur eggs 
>  believed discovered in Bolivia'' please read in 8th paragraph...Some of 
>  the trails of footprints continued for 1,100 feet (350 meters)... instead 
>  of ... Some of the tracks   indicate beasts measuring up to 1,100 feet
>  (350 meters) long (clarifying that the trail of tracks, not the dinosaurs
>  themselves, measured 1,100 feet (350 meters). 

Is this the first-ever correction of a dinosaur-related press release?  Will
it be as widely syndicated, and as prominently featured, as the original
(incorrect) story?

Tony Thulborn