More on science reporting: tracking the spread of a story

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David Hone, a British paleontologist working in China who blogs at Archosaur Musings, has a fascinating post on tracking the reporting of a paper he recently published. Among other things, he was able to follow the ‘Chinese whispers’ or ‘telephone game’ transmission of the news stories by tracking errors that crept into the story as it was published here and picked up there:

Thus science stories can really pick up and spread this way, so although 24 hours after my press release I had only one mention in one paper, after 48 hours this was more than five and another 24 hours later this was more than twenty. One week later it’s up to about fifty and I am still getting new e-mails about this.

This spreading though is especially interesting as between the original press release(s), the paper itself and the blog post (and later interviews) I know which quotes and which information came from where and thus which errors or changes have come in at which stage and which media have picked them up from which other. It is noticeable therefore that one can track errors from report to report as they originate in one and then are copied to others (I tracked a spelling mistake of Tyrannosaurus as Tyrannosaurs across three generations of articles, and each time it appeared in basically the same sentence in the second paragraph of the report, each, theoretically written by a different journalist).

Shades of pseudogene phylogenies! Go and read it and enjoy it there, and comment there if you feel moved to do so to encourage him to keep ‘em coming.

4 Comments

It is an interesting observation that news, gossip or trends becomes ‘viral’ like this. These memes tend to mutate, replicate and eventually disperse in much the same way as a viral epidemic. This concept was studied at an exhibition in the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. I wrote an article on it here for The Scientist if anyone is interested (also at my blog).

Rowan Higgs said: These memes tend to mutate, replicate and eventually disperse…

And of course there are transcription errors, which, as has been mentioned, make it easy to track which version was the source.

Another variation on this is the “canary trap” which starts with slight differences (deliberate transcription errors) in different versions of a document, so one can find where a leak originated. This was explained in an early Tom Clancy novel - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canary_trap

I tracked a spelling mistake of Tyrannosaurus as Tyrannosaurs across three generations of articles, and each time it appeared in basically the same sentence in the second paragraph of the report, each, theoretically written by a different journalist

Modern American journalism is mostly just copy and paste. Glen Greenwald at Salon calls it “stenography” rather than journalism. I tend to agree with him.

And such stenographers serve the reading public poorly. Allowing errors to be published that could have been corrected with so little effort implies that more complicated errors might be similarly ignored.

Is it too much to expect that some small portion of the jillions of man hours saved by the convenience of cut & paste be invested in proof reading and error checking?

But then, perhaps the time saved by c&p is totally occupied with cell phone calls, text messages, e-mail management and other things that themselves are sold as time savers.

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This page contains a single entry by Richard B. Hoppe published on August 13, 2009 11:52 PM.

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