Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Prehistory and the Press - Part 4

At last, the concluding post in a series based on my undergraduate dissertation (stripped down and livened up a bit to avoid boredom). Do please read the first, second and third parts if you haven't done so already. It'll make my day that little bit brighter. (Front cover from my thesis, below; dodgy allosauroid Biro-scribble by yours truly.)

So, what's going wrong with reporting on palaeontology? Unfortunately, as David Hone has pointed out over at Archosaur Musings,
"For all the ever-expanding use of blogs, twitter [sic] and online journals, most people get their science from the traditional media...If the media aren't actually writing stories and checking their sources then anything can get out there, regardless of accuracy." (Source)
Therefore, the mistakes that the mainstream media makes in imparting information are important. Specialist blogs have to be actively sought out, and one is normally only going to be partaking in such seeking if one's already interested in the subject matter. (Don't tell me I can't produce overly-wordy sentences with the best of 'em.) Most people, who aren't especially interested in palaeontology, are going to be finding out about it through their normal news sources. So what are they doing wrong?

Of course, there's an element of laziness, cutting corners and simply not caring. It also rather predictably comes down to money. For all their high-falutin' claims about holding power to account and being a pillar of democracy and the Over-Guardians of the People and all that, newspapers (and, although my study excluded them, let's not forget the commercial news media more broadly) exist to make money. That a lot of them are currently losing money at a rate of millions of pounds per year is by-the-by.

Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist currently enjoying a quite justified popularity boost thanks to his involvement in exposing the goings-on at News International, wrote a popular book back in 2008 entitled Flat Earth News. In said tome Davies spelled out the 'rules of production' for the modern-day 'news factory'. Rule number 6 was 'Give them what they want', explained by Davies thusly:
"Simply, it requires that stories should increase readership or audience. If we can sell it, we'll tell it." (p. 133)
So science stories about subjects viewed as being 'niche' (not that 'niche' is really an adjective, but we'll run with that) receive little attention, or are not treated seriously, because they are not conducive in attracting readers, right? Well, yes, but that's not the whole story.

Here I'm going to bring in a book that often has people zooming to the comment box with a compulsive desire to make clear their ad hominem scorn for an octogenerian professor: Manufacturing Consent. In it, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (for it is he) lay out their 'Propaganda Model' of the news media in an attempt to explain its 'political economy'. While the Propaganda Model is therefore far more relevant to more political journalism (a territory into which palaeontology hardly ever encroaches), there is one highly relevant 'filter' - namely, "the advertising license to do business".

Essentially, newspapers are really out to sell audiences to advertisers. At the Guardian, they are keen to stress the appeal of their science stories to "affluent, well-educated consumers" (source), although they do still boast of "bringing illumination and clarity to scientific topics". Which is more than can be said of the Telegraph, who do not mention their science journalism at all but choose to focus on sports, entertainment and Christina Aguilera looking, as Private Eye might say, "fruity" (source).

See, palaeontology's all well and good when it concerns big, scary dinosaurs and Nessie, but if it's 'hard science' then it just won't sell. Readers will find it hard going and advertisers will be turned off. At least, that's the attitude of those in charge.

Really, there are a combination of factors at play. The Goldacre view of the scientifically illiterate humanities-grad hack is certainly relevant, as is laziness and the casual recycling of material. However, an important reason for science journalism so often failing us is that newspaper editors just don't care that much about it, and the reason they don't care is that it doesn't make money, from the readership or (more importantly) advertising sales. Sex and death make money - a pile of dusty old rocks just don't.

Under-investment is a problem that plagues all newspaper journalism currently, but is particularly pertinent when it comes to science and more, er, 'niche' subjects like palaeontology. Specialist journalists are in short supply and expensive, so many editors feel that they can do without them, especially as budgets are slashed again and again and losses pile up. Hiring science journalists can become uneconomical, and ones who know a thing or two about palaeontology especially so.

So that's that, then. A few sweeping generalisations I'm aware, but I've really condensed this stuff down (and am rather prone to them anyway). Hey, at least I didn't say that the journalism industry was "filled with egotists with delusions of their own importance", like I did in the introduction to my actual thesis, penned after a bit too much moonshine. You'll be happy to hear that, in spite of this, my dissertation was awarded a first, seemingly mostly because of its originality - no other crazy dino-fanatics on my course. The lesson is: if you're not a palaeontologist and people tell you that your wacky hobby won't get you anywhere, don't listen to them!


  1. Sounds like you need more moonshine!
    And a link to you gallery!
    (nice cover!)

  2. "Don't tell me I can't produce overly-wordy sentences with the best of 'em"

    I can't think who you mean. *Folds arms*

    Thoroughly well-deserved first, Marc. Many congratulations. And I hope your day was sufficiently brightened.

    Brilliant dissertation cover, by the way. And yes, it is time you set up your own gallery on dA. Chris D has, you know. Join us. *Prods*

  3. Fine series, Marc. What would be really interesting - and perhaps beyond the means of any of us lowly bloggers - would be a study to see just how people get most of their knowledge about paleontology. As you say, there are some fine specialist blogs out there, and Switek writes stuff on a par with any big-time science reporter. But in my experience, especially with the Boneyard, paleo seems to be a quiet backwater of the larger science blogosphere. I wonder if any of this stuff makes any inroads into the mainstream.


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