“The Mediacene Age”

Ancient primate fossil inspires an unusual press blitz, but will it work?

On Tuesday, The New York Times ran its second article about a 47-million-year-old skeleton that is being described as “the most complete fossil primate ever discovered.”

The monkey-like creature, an entirely new genus and species, might be a “missing link” between modern primates—such as monkeys, apes and humans—and the descendants from which they evolved. But that was the tale of the Times’s first article, published Saturday on page A11. The “bigger” story, as evidenced by Tuesday’s front-page follow-up, which was almost twice as long as its predecessor, is the massive media blitz intended to make “The Link” a pop-science sensation.

Researchers unveiled the fossil, nicknamed Ida, at a high-profile ceremony at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan on Tuesday morning. The event coincided with the journal PLoS ONe’s publication of a peer-reviewed analysis of the skeleton, which was found a number of years ago in Germany. The Times described the museum ceremony as:

[T]he first stop in a coordinated, branded media event, orchestrated by the scientists and the History Channel [which will show a two-hour documentary on Memorial Day], including a film detailing the secretive two-year study of the fossil, a book release, and exclusive arrangement with ABC News and an elaborate Web site. … All of this seems a departure from the normal turn of events, where researchers study their subject and publish their findings, and let the media chips fall where they may.

[Update, May 22: At his blog, Carl Zimmer has a must-read explanation of why this departure from the norm has led to “Science Held Hostage.” Basically, neither PloS or Atlantic Productions (which producted the History Channel’s two-hour documentary on Ida) made the research paper available to reporters until just before the promotional event at the Museum of Natural History. This effectively hindered reporters’ ability to consult with outside experts and favored articles based only on the press conference, where the fossil was hyped as a “missing link” (which is almost always a spurious claim paleontologyically speaking). Zimmer includes some excellent commentary from reporters who were frustrated by the way the paper was withheld, as well as a fairly weak explanation for doing so from the managing editor of PLoS One. In another post, Zimmer does the legwork and speaks to a number of paleontologists. Conclusion: Ida is an incredible find, but the analysis published in PLoS did, indeed, have shortcomings, and the skeleton is certainly no “Holy Grail.”]

“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it, told the Times. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

Indeed, the effort is “a publicity tsunami relative to traditional science communication practices,” wrote American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet on his Framing Science blog. It is a strategy that Nisbet and co-author Dietram Scheufele call “going broad” in a paper currently under review. The goal, according to an excerpt of the paper, is to move science communications “beyond elite audiences,” where they usually stop. Nisbet and Scheufele cite a number of Pew Research Center reports showing that the nightly television news, as opposed to newspapers, and outlets such as The Discovery Channel, as opposed to science magazines, are the predominant sources of scientific information for most people.

“Therefore, in order to reach non-traditional audiences, scientists and their organizations need to be on local television news,” Nisbet and Scheufele write. “To do so, major national communication efforts should be closely coordinated across local media markets, with specific scientists, institutions, or organizations serving as the local angle and spokespeople. … New documentary genres and storytelling techniques are also an important mechanism for going broad.”

Nisbet and Scheufele also highlight the potential value of non-traditional news sources such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, as well as one communications juggernaut completely outside the realm of journalism: Hollywood. The recent release of Angels & Demons has, for instance, inspired a number of articles about the film’s depiction of particle physics. (There are, in fact, myriad examples of the silver screen prompting a surge of media and public interest in the sciences, as I noted last week in a column about the fiftieth anniversary of The Two Cultures debate.)

“Long used as a strategy for engaging the public on public health issues,” Nisbet and Scheufele write, “active involvement with Hollywood in the construction of messages about science can lead to a range of outcomes including informal learning, enhanced interest and attention to science in news coverage and other media, the modeling of positive behavior related to environmental sustainability or energy use, the favorable framing of controversial issues such as the teaching of evolution in schools, or even a spike in news or policy attention to a scientific topic such as climate change.”

Of course, it would not be surprising to find that there are many more examples of Hollywood totally confusing the public’s understanding of science instead of improving it. To that end, Nisbet and Scheufele cite an interesting program recently launched by the National Academy of Sciences, called “The Science & Entertainment Exchange.” According to the program’s Web site, it “provides entertainment industry professionals with access to top scientists and engineers to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines.” The goal is to improve the accuracy and clarity of science’s portrayal in the arts.

It’s already doubtful that entertainment executives promoting Ida, the 47-million year old primate fossil, will strive for a similar degree of accuracy and clarity. [Update, May 22: In fact, it has become readily apparent that they did just the opposite.] In their paper, the researchers who analyzed the skeleton noted that it could represent a primate “stem group” from which today’s monkeys, apes, and humans evolved, but carefully added that “we are not advocating this.” As such, The New York Times article responsibly pointed out that:

[D]espite a television teaser campaign with the slogan “This changes everything” and comparisons to the moon landing and the Kennedy assassination, the significance of this discovery may not be known for years.

Nisbet also noted that his “chief concern” about promoting the fossil is that the media blitz will overstate its import. “The careful balance between innovation in public engagement and the avoidance of hype is something that [Scheufele and I] also address in the working paper,” he wrote. “In particular, when this type of ‘going broad’ strategy is applied around a single discovery or finding rather than a broader scientific subject or body of research, the probability of hype is deeply magnified.”

That last bit of advice is especially sage. Ida is certainly unique and important enough to warrant a major media blitz. But one hopes that her promoters will characterize the fossil remains as a single fascinating piece of evidence among many others. And they should add that, far from settling the debate about our primate ancestors, the latest analysis raises more questions than it answers.

Fortunately, most newspaper accounts have played the story pretty straight, stressing that Ida is a monumental discovery while adding appropriate words of caution. [Update, May 22: Zimmer is, of course, right to stress that many reporters, especially bloggers, failed to contact outside paleontologists for comment. But, as Charlie Petit has observed, while the History Channel documentary is suspect “… it appears that relatively few major outlets went along with, or boosted, the hyperbolic exaggeration of the scientific significance of this wondrously well-preserved specimen as related to them by publicists from outfits deeply invested in making money via Ida’s sudden new status as commodity.]

Coverage, however, has been fairly limited so far (relative to stories without the benefit of a massive promo campaign, at least), casting some doubt the emergence of a “mediacene age,” as the Times put it. [Update, May 22: This post was published shortly after the kick-off event at the Museum of Natural History. Coverage swelled to a fairly impressive level in the hours and days since then, culminating, as Zimmer put it, in “the ultimate triumph of pop-culture consciousness, having become for the moment the background image on the main Google search page.” Still, I can’t help but notice that the number of Google News returns for this story isn’t that much higher than it was other for science sensations such as Mars Rover’s discovery of ice or the opening (and crash) of the Large Hadron Collider – but I could be mistaken.]

In the end, the more interesting and important question may not be whether the publicity blitz lead to hype, but rather if it led to the kind of traction promoters expected. [Update, May 22: I wrote to soon. In retrospect, the most important question does, in fact, seem to be the extent to which publicity campaigns lead to overstatement and/or inhibit science journalists’ ability to be critical and do their work effectively.] While it is imperative to engage the “hard to reach” audiences that Nisbet writes about, stories get “big” because they have meat, not because they are accompanied by flashy advertising campaigns. Ida may be the most complete fossil primate ever, but at this point, scientists are still picking over the bones.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.