Longtime readers know that I'm not a fan of the Daily Mail's archaeological reporting. In fact, I cut my international blogging teeth when I dismantled a piece they ran on the "gay caveman" five years ago. But in light of seeing several archaeological news organizations/social media feeds post Daily Mail (and MailOnline, same thing) links in the last month, I figured I should outline the reasons that this seriously compromises the public's understanding of archaeology and makes us as professionals complicit in the progressive dumbification of science news.
So maybe dumbification is not a real word, but it's pretty apt for what the Mail does.
The insidiousness of the Mail goes beyond simply low-grade reporting or sensationalism. It affects and infects journalism and public outreach in ways that compromise those legitimate attempts to disseminate facts. And the only thing we can really do about it is to not share, not engage, and express outrage.
Here's a nice listicle from which you can pick one or more reasons that you should not -- and that your organization's/department's/etc social media manager should not -- ever share links to the Daily Mail, particularly with students or the public.
1. What you're linking to is probably plagiarized.
I'll lead off with my pet peeve. The Mail reporters do not do their own research. They "repackage" --which is a nice way of saying either they rewrite press releases (which is shitty journalism, but not unethical) or they outright plagiarize (which is definitely unethical). Here's one example of a recent piece I wrote, side-by-side. This happens a lot. No really, A LOT.
In the rare case, the Mail links to my original reporting (which is the very least they could do to be ethical journalists), but mostly they don't. In the rare case, the Mail contacts my sources (the academics who wrote the articles) for additional information or to secure image rights, but mostly they don't.
This means that when you read the Mail, you're reading a version of archaeology news filtered through the telephone game. The Mail condenses, rephrases, and sometimes totally makes crap up. This is problematic for people who want to learn more about the story (the general public), for people who wrote the original research article (and have to answer questions about something they never said), and for people who write popular science pieces (and have their traffic taken away from them, which loses them money and may cost them their job).
Why don't I (and other science journalists) complain to someone?, you might wonder, if this really is plagiarism. Yeah, good luck. This is the state of online journalism today, and what am I going to do, issue a DMCA take-down notice every time the Mail or a blog or whatnot steals my stuff? You better believe the Mail would laugh at me. The best I could hope for would be that they take down the article -- it's not like they'll issue an apology or fire anyone over it.
2. What you're linking to is probably poorly reported.
Drawing on the above, the Mail writers have no time to leisurely read research articles and no training to make sense of what's in them, as they reportedly have to write numerous stories each day (see #4 for more on this). So what you're seeing in a Mail piece is someone's abstract of a popular science post that is abstracted from a research article -- who am I kidding, from the research article's abstract usually. It's a rare journalist today who has the time and inclination to read academic articles (see below for more on this as well), but the Mail folks don't even try. They whip up a clickbait title based on key words sprinkled throughout someone else's reporting. So instead of sharing this and showing students and the public that it's OK to shittily report archaeological news, why not promote the work of the journalists and bloggers who are on the level? (Again, see below for a list.)
3. What you're linking to probably has stolen images.
The Mail is famous as a picture-heavy tabloid, and they always seem to get the most and best images to go with a given story. How do they do this?, you might ask, considering journalists (and, yes, bloggers too) have to get permission to run each individual image in a story. How do they convince scholars or press departments or other news organizations to share all their hard-earned photo permissions? The answer is that they don't. By and large, they take the images and run them without permission. (See above - the image was taken from the authors' journal publication; crediting "researchgate.net" does not get them around the Wenner Gren Foundation's/Current Anthropology's legitimate copyright claims.) At least, that's been the experience of several colleagues whose work I wrote about in Forbes and whose images were simply "repurposed" illegitimately by the Mail. They weren't asked for permission and didn't give it -- but since reporting by the Mail brings some amount of interest in their work, and since academics are unused to making money on their work anyway, they're unlikely to claim copyright theft. So it goes.
4. What you're linking to was probably written by someone who was poorly paid and poorly treated.
There are a number of true-confessions type posts by former Mail reporters out on the big ol' WWW. If you're interested in the specifics, this one at Gawker is thorough and well-written. The short of it is, these former staffers report poor working conditions and often poor pay. Working at the Mail seems somewhat similar to adjuncting in academia -- I imagine many of the reporters want better jobs, but the market for journalism is already small and narrowing even as I type this, so they get the gigs they can get. I fault the tabloid structure and loose ethics of the Mail for that, not necessarily the journalists who don't have much of a choice but to do what they're asked to earn a living.
So, if I've convinced you, you may be wondering what you can do to prevent scientific misinformation dissemination and curb ethically dubious reporting tactics? Here you go:
1. Share any legitimate news source instead of this tabloid. This includes outlets like LiveScience (which is often picked up by Yahoo News), Discovery News (which now seems to have rebranded as Seeker.com for some reason), Forbes (hi, that's me!), The Atlantic, Nature News, National Geographic News, Ars Technica, and longstanding national newspapers -- Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, Independent, Le Monde, El País, La Repubblica, etc.
At the very least, if you see a Daily Mail piece on archaeology that you think is interesting, take a few minutes to type in the title or key words to Google News. Is there another, more fully reported story with an earlier date? Or in a more reputable source? Share that one around. This small amount of research will keep you up to date on the harebrained ideas the Mail is peddling as news so that you can be prepared to counter them when asked by members of the public.
2. Link to blogs curated through high-profile organizations -- Sapiens.org, NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture, Scientific American, Western Digs, Past Horizons -- or through universities/by academics (e.g., John Hawks' weblog, Katy Meyers Emery's "Bones Don't Lie"). Huffington Post is unfortunately very uneven in its coverage; some blogger/contributors are good, but I generally avoid sharing HuffPo science stories unless I know the author. See this post for some more bloggers you can follow.
3. Promote the work of amazing science journalists like Rossella Lorenzi, Carl Zimmer, Tia Ghose, Ed Yong, Stephanie Pappas, Owen Jarus, Maria Godoy, and Brian Switek. They do their homework. They write good pieces. There are others like them, so seek them out. In the end, it helps to know the science journalism ecology when you need to promote your own research, to become a public anthropologist, or to transition to an alt-ac job. It's worth your time as a 21st century anthropologist to learn how science journalism works.
4. Write your own post on interesting research or press releases. But first, learn the difference between a press release and a science news story. Press releases come from places like Phys.org and Eurekalert!, but also from university PR departments and from peer-reviewed journals like PLOS. Press releases are great, as they essentially abstract a new article or finding. But they don't provide in-depth analysis, counterpoints, or, well... reporting. They're one-sided and braggy, whereas pieces from real journalists tend to involve multiple experts and competing interpretations because, you know, that's what science is. Sharing a press release is fine (I do it plenty when it seems to accurately encapsulate the story), but writing up your own professional opinion of the original article is even better. That's how I and other bloggers got started -- by seeing a hole in the coverage of a particular field (bioarchaeology) and stepping up to fill it. Start a blog with a colleague, help students create a collaborative blog, or write guest-posts for others. Here are some tips if you want to go that route.
So please, if you are an anthropologist, if you run a blog, if you have a social media presence, if you teach students, if you do public outreach, please don't share the Mail's stories about archaeology or anthropology. They may be one of the most highly read news sites in the world, but they are to journalism what Wikipedia is to academic research. No, that's not fair to Wikipedia, which is curated by people who care about facts and sources. The Mail is to journalism what essay mills are to academic research.
Sharing a Mail piece does more harm than good, so let's show students and the public that we do our background research, even in outreach.
Update: 6/26/16 - Last night, Kris Hirst, an archaeologist who writes great things at About.com, shared this post. And I got a Saturday night Twitter troll in the form of a science journalist saying that a "high number" of my Forbes posts are "simply rewritten PR's from Eurkalert" and also accusing me of not being a journalist (that's right, I'm not!) and not reporting properly (again, see the fact I'm an academic and not a reporter!).
I have had occasion to rely on press releases for information (see my recent piece on the Pompeii skeletons, for which I used a press release in Italian from the archaeological superintendency; I covered this because I'm a Roman bioarchaeologist and am cheesy excited that there are new skeletons), but if an article is available, I always read it. I wouldn't be an academic if I didn't.
As an example of how science reporting often works, there was a press release recently about the oldest Chinese beer. I read the PNAS article and covered it here, without talking to other experts -- but I pulled in a quote from the first author from the AFP press release and cited it as such. My detractor also read the article and covered it here, without talking to other experts -- but got a quote directly from the author. That's the difference between "real" reporting and mine -- I don't have press credentials, so I can't say that I'm "reporting for Forbes" and can't write "as X told Forbes" in my pieces (I'm a contributor and not a full-time journalist, so that makes sense). I rely on my professional, academic relationship with people to get quotes and opinions, which also means that I don't do things that can screw up that professional relationship.
So our Twitter convo last night involved my explaining that I'm not a journalist but that I certainly don't rewrite press releases. In fact, if I can't get an original article or can't talk to someone about it or can't figure out an angle of my own, I don't write it up. Besides, I strongly prefer to make my colleagues' articles news by identifying interesting stories like this article on vultures and decapitation or this one on vampire burials. If there's a press release, chances are someone else is writing it up already, so I don't need to pile on unless I have something different to say. My goal with blogging is to help my colleagues get recognition for their work in bio/archaeology and to communicate their findings to the general public. It's not traditional journalism; it's non-traditional outreach.
Interestingly, after this exchange, he deleted his tweets. Twitter doesn't notify me of all tweets and replies, unfortunately, so I only have about half of them, from the middle of the convo, which started out with his saying I shouldn't be writing a screed about the Mail because I'm not doing any better.
But the following should give you some context if you're interested (and if you only saw my half of the convo)...