Contrary to my expectations, I did not have nightmares about gargantuan squid tangling with enormous ichthyosaurs in the shadowy reaches of the sea last night. That’s probably for the best – the mythical beastie has claimed enough of my waking hours. Since news of the Triassic squid-that-wasn’t-there broke Monday morning, I have been following the story, responding to new developments, and watching the backlash to my backlash. There has been a lot to keep up with.
Depending on who you ask, the blame for the promulgation of the kraken nonsense lies – in whole or in part – with paleontologist Mark McMenamin, the GSA, science reporters who rehashed the press release, or me for “sensationalizing sensationalism.” There are as many fingers to point as the kraken has arms, and I have done my share. I specifically called out reporters who, in my opinion, uncritically accepted the story from the GSA press release and presented what is clearly science fiction as science fact. (If McMenamin kept all the evidence the same, but said that the ichthyosaur bone patterns were created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Cthulhu, or an Intelligent Designer, would anyone have taken his claims seriously? Maybe he would have ended up with a History Channel special, but still…) Furthermore, I said that this practice of repurposing press releases with little to no verification, caution, or additional thought – called churnalism – is a significant problem within science journalism.
I knew that my post would irritate some of my science writer colleagues. No one likes to hear that there is something awry within their chosen profession. But let me be clear about what I did and did not say. I wrote that churnalism is a significant problem within science journalism – as David Rothschild on the iThenticate blog pointed out, “bad journalism promotes bad science.” The Kraken case is a perfect example of that, and it is hardly the only case. I did not say that all science journalists are guilty of doing this, however, and I directed my complaints specifically. The point was to highlight an issue within the discipline, and my aim was not to tar the entire science writer community. There are plenty of good writers out there doing excellent work, but, simultaneously, that doesn’t mean that the common practice of directly reorganizing science press releases into news articles isn’t a problem worth considering, especially when exceptional claims are involved.
I have to admit that I have been baffled by a few responses to my initial post. At the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Robert Irion and Robert Lee Hotz suggest that I blew the churnalism issue out of proportion simply because many science writers at big-name media institutions “gave this story a pass.” At her Planet of the Apes blog, Faye Flam added similar criticisms and added “What I see here is a not a problem with science journalism but a problem with bloggers.” Maybe I have things entirely wrong, but the disagreement seems to stem from the fact that I called writers who re-wrote the press releases for news sites “reporters.” This is an argument about definition. If you think a reporter is only a college-trained journalist who writes for a major magazine or newspaper, then our Dulcinea of science journalism remains safe from the kraken, but I feel that this contention misses the point and continues to perpetuate the hidebound notion that news only comes in print form via the New York Times or The Economist.
Just take the LiveScience story on the kraken as an example. The article was syndicated to the Christian Science Monitor, FOX News, CBS News, Yahoo!, MSNBC, and elsewhere. We can look down our noses at these media establishments all we want, but the fact is that a poorly-reported story was spread very quickly to news aggregators where a lot of eyeballs could pick it up. Right now, given the poor state of scientific understanding, we can’t really afford to be snooty and say such problems don’t matter because writers at top-tier establishments know better than to repeat findings as they are announced in a press release. For those who felt I put down all of science journalism unfairly, I am sorry for that, but I stand by my argument that churnalism and the rapid spread of inaccurate information remains a significant problem within the science journalism community.
Since I posted my original article, though, I am happy to say that the kraken coverage has improved. Much to her credit, Jeanna Bryner of LiveScience updated the original article with skeptical takes on the find from myself and paleontologist Glenn Storrs. Likewise, Douglas Main at Discover magazine’s Discoblog, Pete Spotts of the Christian Science Monitor, Ker Than of National Geographic Daily News, and Sid Perkins at NatureNews all included critical comments from various experts, while Sarah Simpson at Discovery News wrote a good takedown of McMenamin’s hypothesis which has been cited by writers such as Elizabeth Flock at the Washington Post blogs and Ned Potter at the ABC News science blog. Other stories – such as the one by Rene Lynch at the Los Angeles Times and the video created by Slate – acknowledged the controversy about McMenamin’s claims without providing outside comments or very much detail, but, overall, the tone of the kraken coverage has shifted since the early reports on Monday.
What I am wondering is this – what role did early critical responses play in shaping the additional coverage of the story? Comments from Pharyngula, Discovery News, and this blog have been used in a number of news stories about the supposed Triassic kraken, and, though I know there is no way to answer this question, I wonder what would have happened to the big squid story if bloggers hadn’t started making a fuss about it. That’s why I bristled when I read Flam’s comment about the principal problem being with bloggers. Some news blogs promulgated a poorly-researched version of the story, but bloggers were also some of the first sources – outside of paleontologists and geologists themselves – to call “Bullshit!” on the story. That’s part of a lesson that still meets resistance from some professional journalists – blogs are software. You can use a blog to repost press releases, criticize media coverage, and even – gasp! – engage in actual journalism. The blog is just the format the article is printed in, and the term “blogger” isn’t really useful term since it only indicates use of a format. (The old school equivalent would be “pen-and-paper writer”, I suppose.) The kraken story spread through some blogs but was also dismantled by blogs, so let’s not get drawn back into the same old “bloggers are the problem” argument.
The kraken was not the first media monster to exercise its influence through recycled press releases, and it won’t be the last. As friend and sci-writing colleague John Rennie has pointed out, right now science news is dominated by a race to post stories immediately when embargoes lift at the major journals or important conferences. Given these conditions, time is a rare resource and so it is not surprising that press releases are often repurposed into articles to save time and effort. Again, let me emphasize that not all science journalists follow this practice, but, as the kraken incident shows, the fact that some reporters do can be a major problem for all science communicators when exceptional claims are made. Yeah, I wrote a critique of the kraken abstract and the media coverage, but how many people would have read that if other people had not shared or quoted what I wrote? Critical reactions can have a hard time catching up when flimsy hypotheses start to make the rounds, and I am glad other writers and reporters have also been pointing out the deep flaws in the kraken story. Even better would be to try to cut churnalism off at its source, but, frustratingly, sooner or later we will undoubtedly be faced with another kraken of one form or another.
Top Image: A kraken – or “Poulpe Colossal” – attacks a ship in this 1810 painting by Pierre Dénys de Montfort. Image from Wikipedia.