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Return to the chronic documentary problem

Having finished up some other items I have the chance to return to the 
issue of paleontological documentaries. Dealing with this serious and if 
anything growing problem will require action by SVP, and I have talked about 
issue with other very concerned about the issue, including Phil Currie. At the 
minimum the society needs to issue a statement that requires that producers 
– aside from not outright misleading participants as creationists are wont 
to do -- actually ensure the accuracy of their product by fully meeting the 
requirements of the scientists involved in the project. It is a good idea to 
note that the more creative and content control held by participating 
experts the more technically correct the content is likely to be. There are 
examples of this being done. A BBC production (The Fatal Attraction of Hitler) 
had a much higher level of historical sophistication and accuracy than is 
usual for the genre because it was scripted and actually narrated by a 
professor who actually knew what he was talking about, rather than the 
standard procedure in which the producers do what they consider “research,” and 
“consult” with the experts in a manner that places limits on the expert’s 
control and usually results in a defective product. There is no actual 
reason that the experts do not more directly create, write and narrate programs 
on their field of expertise other than the industry has snatched control from 
the scientists, and we have let them do so. Ergo, rather than the real 
experts directly transmitting the information to the public, the current system 
filters and distorts the science while mistreating the experts. 

Below is a very tentative draft statement to get the discussion ball 
rolling. In addition, it could be a good idea to have written up by legal 
a draft contract that we paleos can use. If just about everyone refuses to 
use standard contracts the producers will have to acquiesce.  

Statement of Concern by The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Concerning 
Paleontological Documentaries

    Paleontologists understand that one of the most important aspects of 
their research and analysis is presenting the results of their efforts to the 
public at large. This is necessary both for basic educational and 
information purposes – which are critical to encouraging the next generation of 
researchers – and because the public often supports paleontological scientific 
research through their tax dollars and contributions. 
    One of the most important venues for transmitting the results of 
scientific research to the public are documentary programs that appear on 
television and digital media. The tremendous expansion of the sheer number of 
documentaries in recent years on proliferating cable and satellite channels 
be a positive for the scientific community and the public.
    The Society finds that the proliferation of science programming 
approaching and entering the new century has not only failed to improve the 
standards of the genre, but is not even maintaining what was already sometimes 
questionable quality levels in prior decades. We are instead seriously 
by the lowering of quality standards regarding the information that many 
programs contain. This situation is not acceptable. Every single program 
should meet the highest criterion of scientific content, to the degree that 
are all scientists are pleased by the results. This is not occurring because 
of a competitive race to the bottom between too many producers to the 
lowest common denominator in order to maximize ratings and revenues. 
    In parallel, there have been rare but grave instances of illegitimate 
producers posing as mainstream documentarians who have exploited the 
appearance of scientists unaware of the true intent of the program to support 
defective, pseudoscientific claims. 
The above problems often stem from the unbalanced contractual control of 
the content of programming. These documents typically require the contributor 
to waive all control of their appearance, and leave them unable to determine 
the final technical content of the documentary. This is a serious defect in 
that experience shows that programming directly controlled by experts 
provides superior information content than does programming in which experts 
as mere advisors and lack final say on the contents of the documentary. 
    We therefore issue the below principles regarding the production of, 
and participating by experts in, science documentaries. 

All paleontological documentaries must meet the highest standards of 
quality of scientific content, as determined by participating experts who have 
contractual finally approval of the content. 

Program participants are urged to utilize contracts that favor the control 
of experts over programming content. 

It is unethical for producers to misrepresent the intended contents of a 
program to the participants in the program. 

    The inherent priority of the scientific community is to ensure that the 
public views only programming of the highest quality, not to meet the needs 
of the creators of such programming that may be having a detrimental impact 
on the excellence of the product. Researchers also need to protect 
themselves from the rare but seriously damaging cases of outright fraud by 
programming producers. The above steps will hopefully bring the situation under 
better control to the advantage of the viewing public.   

Another possible way to address the problem is for some paleontologists to 
collaborate with a producer interested in working in true cooperation with 
scientists to form a new company to produce programming. I have talked about 
this possibility with some colleagues, and if there are any producers 
interested in examining the potential let me know.