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RE: New finds

While I appreciate the flattery, I can hardly claim infallibility. One thing a science reporter needs to know is what they doesn't know, so we can either ask somebody who (hopefully) knows better, or just shut up about it. Where you get into trouble is where you try to wave your hands to explain something you really don't understand, or (worse yet) where a copy-editor tries to explain something he or she doesn't understand in your story and never gets around to showing it to you before it gets into print.

Steve makes a good point about detail that struck home because I was talking with a documentary maker today about a (non-dinosaur) project. We were trying to figure out how to explain something "good enough" to satisfy a casual viewer with no background knowledge without spending 15 minutes on something that 99.99% of the viewers would either already know or -- more likely -- not give a hoot about. An engineer working in the field could pick the explanation apart, and doubtless some of them will. But the documentary is for the home PBS viewer, not for a graduate engineering course.

That's the same problem science writers have in explaining dinosaurs. If you're writing for a daily newspaper, you have to assume your reader has no particular knowledge about dinosaurs other than (probably) having seen Jurassic Park. You have to compare small theropods to "the Velociraptors of Jurassic Park," even though they were (literally) bigger than life in the movie. If you're trying to explain how birds evolved from dinosaurs for a daily newspaper, you can't go into all the detail Greg Paul does in his excellent Dinosaurs of the Air. You need to explain it all at a very simple level, and not worry about the details.

The press often is limited in space. I rarely get more than 500 words to explain anything except in a feature. Chopping my story on the 7-million year hominid skull from 700 words to 500 hurt; I was losing things that I would have wanted to know as a reader. But that's all the slot we had on-line or in the magazine because there are other stories our readers want to know as well. If you really want to get the gory details, go to more technical magazines or the original source. -- Jeff Hecht

At 8:54 PM -0500 7/11/02, Steve Brusatte wrote:

Hey now! :-) Actually, there is a major problem with science reporting. I was fortunate enough to listen to a talk on this subject recently in San Diego (given by a young science reporter who recently graduated from Berkeley with a degree in biology or biochemistry, or something like that). The major problem is this: science, at its deepest level, is just too technical. If I were to write a story on, say, physics, I'm sure a physics mailing list could pick it apart. When someone is an expert on a subject (as many on this list are), then it is easy to catch mistakes. However, I'm sure that very few of the locals who read or listened to the "ampelosaur" story knows what _Ampelosaurus_ is, much less a titanosaurid, and, probably, even much less a sauropod.

Therefore, I wouldn't hold the press lower than (_blank_). Misspellings, bad grammar, and bias are valid reasons to criticize the press, but, the press has a job to serve the public and present news of value to the common people. A technical article on _Ampelosaurus_ would not be of any real value to the average person who reads a newspaper. An article on a dinosaur discovery, with a mention of how it might relate to a previous discovery, is of interest, however.

When it comes down to it, the upper levels of science are just too technical for those who have not studied it to understand. As a result, those technicalities are of no value to the public. In a science magazine, like New Scientist, however, the stories must be held to a higher standard. Luckily, people like Jeff Hecht (and other gifted science reporters like Carl Zimmer) do an excellent job.

Jeff Hecht, science & technology writer
jeff@jeffhecht.com; http://www.jeffhecht.com
Boston Correspondent: New Scientist magazine
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