Stories tagged journalism


Here's what we know...: But what happened before?
Here's what we know...: But what happened before?Courtesy JGordon
Check this story out, Buzz-gumshoes: An Australian man has been sent to the hospital after a vicious wombat attack.

Interesting. Very interesting, eh, Buzzketeers? It sounds like our kind of story.

Here are the facts… as they have been reported so far:
-Bruce Kringle, 60, of Flowerdale, Australia, was stepping out of his home when he “felt something attack his leg.”
-The attacking party was a wombat, a badger-like marsupial.
-The wombat managed to knock Mr. Kringle off of his feet, and then climbed onto his chest and proceeded to savage the man for 20 or so minutes.
-An axe was within arm’s reach, and Mr. Kringle used it to kill the wombat.
-Mr. Kringle was then admitted to hospital with puncture wounds in his arms and legs.
-Wombats are generally docile creatures. This individual’s aggression might be explained by a irritating case of the mange.

I don’t know about y’all, but when I add all that up, I only produce one answer: WTF! (That stands for “Wombat Tale: False!”)

Here are some additional questions and considerations we must account for, before this case can be closed:
-Who is “Bruce Kringle”? Could he be the same person as Branson Kringle, the Special Forces soldier who came out of retirement to rescue a group of kidnapped missionaries in Myanmar, only to disappear once again when the mission was complete?
-Wombats can be several feet long, and weigh nearly 80 pounds, and they can achieve speeds of nearly 25 miles per hour. Without knowing the creature’s rate of acceleration, I can’t determine how much force it could have struck Mr. Kringle with (force=mass x acceleration), but it seems reasonable that the marsupial could have mustered enough force to knock the man over… except
-If Mr. Kringle “felt an attack” at his leg as soon as he stepped outside. This seems to imply that he was not immediately rammed by the attacking wombat. So… what? He was bitten, and then allowed the creature to back up and charge? While he was still so near to his front door? Hmm. How did Kringle end up on his back?
-Do something for me, Buzzketeers: tap your pointer fingers against each other. Continue to tap them for one whole minute. It feels like an awfully long time, doesn’t it? Now imagine that, instead of tapping your fingers for that minute, you were being attacked by something that looks like a wolf-sized hamster. And then multiply that length of time by twenty. That’s a long time to be attacked by a wolf-sized hamster (or by a wombat.)
-At what point did the axe appear within arm’s reach?
-Wombats, it seems, are actually not known to be particularly docile, especially when defending their territory from intruders.
-Mr. Kringle was, in fact, stepping out of his “caravan,” which is Australian for “RV.” He was living in the vehicle while his home was being rebuilt (it was destroyed in last year’s Black Saturday bush fires.)

Despite being an otherwise impeccably reliable newspaper, I feel like the Telegraph is withholding information from us.

It seems that Bruce may have been forced to temporarily move his caravan into wombat territory… but what was it about that day that made the wombat finally snap? How did Bruce get knocked over? And who gave Bruce the axe… only after allowing him to be attacked for twenty finger-tapping minutes?

I think someone wanted that wombat dead, and they manipulated trained-killer Bruce (aka, Branson) Kringle into pulling the trigger for them! The only remaining question is “who?”

BAM! How’s that for journalism?

Recently departed Saint Paul, MN native Deborah Howell has a great article on the perils and paragons of science journalism. It's a smart read for any of us, who are trying decipher the true nature of the hundreds of scientific breakthroughs, findings, and bursts published in our media each day.


Not, in fact, a dinosaur: But still interesting.
Not, in fact, a dinosaur: But still interesting.Courtesy Ryan Somma
The Telegraph, the only newspaper brave enough to bring us stories about lost monkeys, unusual looking cats, and the daily trials and tribulations of British pensioners, is one of my favorites. I mean, I’m not going to read about giraffe penis mixups in so called “real” newspapers.

That’s why it's so painful for me to read, in an otherwise intellectually impeccable publication, headlines like this:

Dinosaurs hit rivals like athletes hit balls:
Glyptodont dinosaurs had a finely-adapted tail with a "sweet spot" which clubbed rivals in the same way as tennis or cricket players hit balls, scientists say.

Do you see the trouble here? Oh, glob, it feels like a hot sauce-coated cheese greater rubbing against my eyes. No… it’s like a mace-painted micro-plane on my corneas.

Let’s walk through it. “Hits rivals like athletes hit balls,” I like. We won’t get into why, but I like it. And the “sweet spot” part is good too—it gets right to the meat of the story.

But do you see the problem?!

“Glyptodont dinosaurs”? “Glyptodont dinosaurs”?!

It makes me want to hit someone with a novelty hammer so large that it could actually seriously wound him or her.

I mean, I’d understand if they said something like “dimetrodon dinosaurs,” because, you know, they look a little dinosaury, even if they were synapsids, and lived in the Permian. And it might even be reasonable to say something like “pteranodon dinosaurs,” because they were reptiles too, after all, and at least they were around in the Mesozoic.

But glyptodonts? They were mammals! Argh! And they lived up into the Pleistocene… they were around at the same time as humans! Oh, Telegraph…


Glyptodonts were basically armadillos the size of small cars. They had massive, armored tails, and, apparently, scientists have figured that there was a particular spot on the tail where they would most likely try to center force when swinging the appendage to defend themselves. Like bat- and racquet-using athletes who try to hit balls with a certain area of the bat or racquet to balance power and stress on their wrists and arms, some glyptodont species grew a large spike right at this “sweet spot,” suggesting that it was a practical development, and not just generally for show.

What, though, do you suppose glyptodonts were hitting with that tail? They first evolved in South America, where the top predators were a group of massive flightless birds, nicknamed “Terror birds.” But as big and scary as the terror birds were, glyptodonts were substantially more massive, and the armor alone seems like overkill, let along the club tail. Also, there’s some debate as to whether the terror birds were even carnivorous.

But, then again, organisms don’t evolve traits like that for nothing. So hopefully something was getting clubbed. Like dinosaurs.

PS—Check out the SMM’s dinos and fossils gallery for skeletons of both a glyptodont and a terror bird. See how very un-dinosaur they are.


Want to ask an expert a question? We'll have NOVA scienceNOW's experts answer selected submissions. This is a rare opportunity, so come up with questions, make a video, and send it in.

Video questions will be selected and posted on the Cosmic Perspective page on the NOVA scienceNOW website and then be answered by our experts throughout the season of NOVA scienceNOW, via text on our website, with the last question being answered the day after the final broadcast, September 2, 2009.

For more details please go to



Want to ask an expert a question? We'll have NOVA scienceNOW's experts answer selected submissions. This is a rare opportunity, so come up with questions, make a video, and send it in.

Video questions will be selected and posted on the Cosmic Perspective page on the NOVA scienceNOW website and then be answered by our experts throughout the season of NOVA scienceNOW, via text on our website, with the last question being answered the day after the final broadcast, September 2, 2009.

For more details please go to



OK, Science Buzz writers! Time for a pop quiz. Let’s say you were writing a blog post based on the following two facts:

  • Arctic sea ice, 2007: 1.59 million square miles (the lowest on record)
  • Arctic sea ice 2008: 1.74 million square miles (the second-lowest on record)

What would your headline be?

Well, you could give it a positive spin and say something like, Sea ice grows, but that would rather miss the big picture, doncha’ think?

Or you could go all negative and say Sea ice near historic lows, which again would be accurate, but overlooks the dynamics of the situation.

A nice fair-and-balanced approach would be to say Sea ice grows, but remains near record low. That covers all your bases.

The one thing you cannot do is lie and say Arctic sea ice shrinks to 2nd-lowest on record Because it’s not, actually, you know, shrinking. It’s growing.

Lying is a bad idea, even if you don’t necessarily subscribe to the Ninth Commandment.

  • Lying is bad for journalism. People look to journalists to give them the straight dope. If a newspaper can’t be trusted, why bother reading it? (This may explain the recent precipitous decline in newspaper readership.)
  • Lying is bad for the environmental movement. When the lies are exposed – and they always are, though usually not in the second freakin’ paragraph – it confuses those who are undecided as to where they stand on this whole global warminging thing, and it gives ammunition to the skeptics who say it’s all a hoax and a scam.
  • And most of all, lying is bad for the Earth. Governments are setting policies in response to climate change. If we take action based on the belief that sea ice is shrinking, when in fact it is growing, it could very well mean the end of life on this planet.

Just a little something to keep in mind as you compose your Buzz posts. Be careful out there.


A brown recluse: What do you suppose it's thinking about? I think I know.
A brown recluse: What do you suppose it's thinking about? I think I know.Courtesy Mean and Pinchy
You know what we love? Genitals. And I think you know which brand I’m talking about: the funny kind. And we just can’t get them out of our minds!

Take, for instance, some new research on spider venom. In addition to its long-established killing stuff properties, it turns out that some spider venom contains compounds that could aide the development of treatments for health issues ranging from arthritis to erectile dysfunction.

Whoa! Did I just type what I think I typed? “Erectile”? “Erectile dysfunction”? Whoa ho ho ho! Ha ha ha! Erectile dysfunction! That means that, you know, the elevator isn’t reaching the top floor! That, like, junk isn’t… Ha ha! Man, I love spiders! They are hilarious! Let’s see where else this research into comedy gold will take us.

It seems that some scientists at Cornell University have developed a new way of analyzing the molecular makeup of spider venom. Using “nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy,” the scientists were able to obtain detailed information on the molecular composition of spider venom, and, especially exciting, found entirely new molecules that had been overlooked in previous analysis of venom. The venom of the brown recluse spider, in particular, yielded some remarkable compounds.

“Remarkable compounds”? What is this? Get back to the erectile dysfunction! What happened to that stuff?

Hiding behind some larger molecules, the brown recluse venom was found to have some very small and interesting molecules called “sulfated nucleosides.” These molecules are quite similar to RNA, a basic component of our genetic material. Studying the sulfated nucleosides could lead to a better understanding of how brown recluse venom works.

Works at what? Curing impotence? Something like that? Gosh, it actually seems like this research was mostly about a new method of chemical analysis. But remember the part about, you know, wieners? Ah ha ha! Good stuff. Love it! In fact, the headline of any article about this research should focus on that incidental piece of information.

You’re welcome, scientists. We weren’t interested in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, so we changed the focus a little. Now you’ve given us what we want. (Genitals.)


What does this even mean?: Science! Or, like, shower curtains? Secret cancer fat? Whatever.
What does this even mean?: Science! Or, like, shower curtains? Secret cancer fat? Whatever.Courtesy I_vow_to_you
Psyche! Y’all been duped, Buzzketeers! There ain’t no “green sex fat cancer secret”! Or maybe there is, but you’re not going to find it here. No, this is simply a lesson in critical thinking (or something like that).

But, JGordon, why would you of all people do this to us? You, who we turn to you for all that stuff we aren’t that interested in when we’ve already read all the other posts on Science Buzz. Et tu, JGordus? Et tu?

Yes, me tu, y‘all. This is part of your training. Like, remember when Luke Skywalker was learning from Yoda in the Degobah System, and Yoda would be telling him to focus his chi on some rock, and then he’d wallop Luke in the junk with his little walking stick? It was all to teach Luke to protect the jewels, even when he was focusing his chi. This is exactly like that: protect your stuff (intellectual integrity, we’ll say), even when you’re focusing your chi on some rock (i.e. trying to do some learning on the internet).

See, not so long ago, a press release was picked up by ABC (and ultimately several other news outlets) reading “Toxic ties to ‘New Shower Curtain Smell’ Evident,” or something along those lines. It was all about how shower curtains are constantly farting dozens of toxic chemicals, and it came with some pictures of a young mother holding her young baby in a bathroom (presumably to get farted on by their shower curtain?). Google it, jokers.

Some news organizations ran with it, some went about debunking the story; some people continued on with their normal lives, some people began showering out in the open, and, for some people, that was their normal life (weirdoes). Eventually, the Consumer Products Safety Commission stated that there were some serious problems with the original study’s testing methodology, and that the issue deserved some more research before people start getting too scared of their shower curtains.

Whatever the case (the authors of the study at the Center for Health Environment & Justice stand by their research), the point here is that news organizations went bonkers over the story, and people were all about it. The New York Times, then, wrote this article on the situation, pointing out that writers of press releases are well aware of the language that will get people fired up about their dumb, and perhaps questionably accurate stories. Some of the key words to snag a reader’s interest? “Green,” “sex,” “fat,” “cancer” and “secret.” Who isn’t intrigued by green sex fat cancer secrets?

It was interesting to me, too, that so many of those terms are science, or quasi science related. “Green,” sex,” “fat” and “cancer” all seem to qualify. Certainly they’re important issues, if you expand them beyond buzzwords, but some of their importance comes from their ability to get our attention. They get our attention because they’re important, but they’re important because they get our attention. It’s perhaps a worthwhile thing to consider when looking at what science developments are getting a lot of notice in the press, and eventually in public policy. What I’m getting at is this: write your representative and tell her or him to vote “no” on the Fat green cancer/secret sex initiative (prop 401). We don’t need that added to our water.


Fair and balanced: Or leaning to the left, as it often does.  Journalism often presents science in less-than-accurate ways.
Fair and balanced: Or leaning to the left, as it often does. Journalism often presents science in less-than-accurate ways.Courtesy nick farnhill

You'll never find any of that here! ;-) But the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently discussed how the public receives and understands science news. The situation is discouraging – there’s a lot of bad information out there, much of it the result of sloppy reporting. One of the big culprits was a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of statistics.

Meanwhile, biochemist Michael White complains about how the human desire to tell a good story often misrepresents how science really works.


In the past several weeks, protestors have crowded the streets of Rangoon, Burma to demand an end to the military dictatorship there. Like dictators everywhere, the military responded violently, and tried to cover up the news.

But modern technology is making that more difficult. Bloggers have used the Internet to broadcast news and pictures of the demonstrations. And high-definition satellite images confirm the violence, forced relocations, and other human-rights abuses.

In the past, a dictatorship was able to control the flow of information. That’s no longer possible. Whether or not the international community responds to this evidence in any meaningful way remains to be seen.