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     As someone who works in the media (The Telegraph, daily newspaper in 
Alton, Ill.), I wanted to respond to cupla points made in the IBWO 
Controversy discussion.
     I don't think either of these comments was intended to bash or blame 
the media for how the controversy has played out, but I do think they assume 
a little too much. And I don't want to sound like I'm whining about it, 
because I realize the media is fair game for criticism, much of it probably 
deserved and legitimate. Nevertheless...

     Robert Fisher wrote:
     "It is time to blame a usual suspect -- "the media." Please note that 
the principal sources for much of the now-ended "Ivory-bill Controversy" 
were newspaper stories. I'm all for a constitutionally-protected free press. 
It must be allowed to do its job (selling newspapers). But the time and 
place for evaluating scientific claims is when they actually are published 
and answered in respected scientific journals. It's a frustratingly slow 
process sometimes. But the end result is more reliable."

     My response is that Mr. Fisher seems to be "blaming" the messenger, 
cliche as that sounds. Let's keep in mind that these newspaper stories were 
written for the general public, not specifically for those with a special 
interest in birds. Let's also remember that the announcement by Cornell et 
al about the "rediscovery" of the IBWO was big news all over TV and NPR, as 
well as in the newspapers. Would Mr. Fisher have been happier if newspapers 
had ignored this story because the scientific vetting process still was 
playing out?
     Let's face it, when somebody with the status of Cornell Lab and Nature 
Conservancy makes a major announcement like this, it's the media's job to 
report that announcement. It's not the job of a daily newspaper to be 
expected to analyze and evaluate all the scientific issues involved in time 
for that evening's deadline.
     I think Mr. Fisher is actually making this same point when he says that 
scientific claims should be evaluated when they are hashed out in 
"respected" (hmm, guess newspapers get no respect, huh?) scientific 
journals. I agree 100 percent. But if readers and/or birders are jumping to 
conclusions based on breaking newspaper reports, I think the readers and 
birders at least share the blame.
     I submit that in this matter, the newspapers carried out their function 
pretty much as they should: They reported the initial announcement, then 
they reported the fact that some observers were challenging the conclusions 
of the Cornell team. I don't think it should be the job of the newspapers 
either to take sides in the controversy or claim to have definitive answers. 
Rather, I think it's their job to give all sides their fair say, and to put 
the scientific controversy in perspective for the average reader.
     Let's keep in mind, the percentage of hardcore birders who really got 
into discussing all this is miniscule compared to the overall number of 
general interest readers. I've spoken to many people, including some in my 
own newsroom, whose general reaction to the whole story was, "Who cares? 
It's just a bird." I would guess that's how a significant percentage of the 
general readership feels.
     As Mr. Fisher correctly points out, those with a true stake and 
interest in the real science of this matter probably should hold off on 
drawing final conclusions until all the scientific publications weigh in. 
But newspapers also must consider the vast majority of readers who, at best, 
have a passing interest in the initial announcement, then might also be 
interested to know that there are skeptics.
     My basic argument is that in matters such as this, newspapers should be 
viewed as the starting place for the discussion, a format for disseminating 
the "news" of a major announcement by "respected" scientists, and not as the 
final arbiter of purely scientific questions. And in that respect, I'd have 
to say the newspapers did their job pretty well, wouldn't you agree? There 
probably has been more attention paid to a single bird species in the last 
few months than I can ever remember, not to mention the corollary issues of 
conservation and public access that have arisen. Certainly, the IBWO has 
been a hot topic on MOBIRDS, altho that might well have happened even 
without any major announcement in the newspapers.

     The other point to which I wanted to respond comes from Jeff Wright, 
who wrote:

     I think the point of Robert Fisher's email was just to say that 
everyone, birder or scientist, has a tendency to jump on whatever bandwagon 
the media pushes.

     Again, I think Mr. Wright is assigning motives to the media that may 
not really be there. I doubt that the vast majority of daily newspapers or 
electronic media outlets were "pushing" any agenda or bandwagon in this 
matter. If the announcement by Cornell Lab had been to the effect that their 
researchers had proved conclusively that the IBWO was extinct, I think the 
media would have duly (not dully, at least I hope not) reported their 
conclusions. Maybe it wouldn't have made as big a splash, because the idea 
of a species "coming back from the dead," so to speak, has much more appeal 
and naturally is going to be played up more prominently.
     In this case, if there was a "bandwagon," I would say it was being 
"pushed" by the ornithological and conservation communities, both of which 
were eager to promote public interest in their particular areas of concern. 
After the excitement of the initial reports died down, and the IBWO faded 
from the headlines, it clearly was these two communities that continued and 
intensified the discussion of the issues involved. And when there are 
schisms within these communities on issues of at least some interest to the 
general public, the media again is only doing its job when it reports on 
these controversies.
     OK, don't mean to beat this thing to death. In conclusion, I'd just 
like to pose this question: What harm was done by the media in publicizing 
the initial announcement and the subsequent controversies? Perhaps some in 
the ornithological community had their "feathers" ruffled? Seems like a 
small price to pay when compared to the positive attention that was paid to 
the whole IBWO drama and the raising of the public's awareness on 
environmental and conservation issues.
     And hey, hasn't it given a lot of us something to talk and speculate 
about for the last few months? I sometimes think we worry too much about the 
answers and the conclusions, when it's really the questions and the 
speculation that make these issues interesting. If we had known on the first 
day the report came out, conclusively and without question, that the IBWO 
definitely was still in existence, would it have been as much fun as we've 
had for the last few months? There's something to be said for a little 
mystery and controversy, in my opinion.

--Steve Whitworth, city editor, The Telegraph, Alton, IL





>From: Robert Fisher <[log in to unmask]>
>Reply-To: Robert Fisher <[log in to unmask]>
>To: [log in to unmask]
>Subject: Re: [BIRDCHAT] End of Ivory-billed Controversy - Bizarre!
>Date: Tue, 2 Aug 2005 11:21:08 -0500
>
>Below, FYI, I am copying something I posted to the BIRDCHAT, which has 
>already drawn a lot of replies, some pro, some con and some not 
>understanding my point. Before reading it, please be assured that I am not 
>finding fault with Messrs. Jackson, Prum and Robbins, who wisely did not 
>publish, and who should not be criticised for something they did not do.
>
>This whole discussion  has been somewhat bizarre. First, we are told that
>Jackson, Prum and Robbins are going to publish a paper challenging the
>conclusion that the bird in a brief, blurry video is an IBWO. As a result,
>lots of subscribers to this [i.e. to BIRDCHAT] and other birding lists get 
>themselves into a
>dither, and refutations of the non-paper appear on line before it even gets
>printed. Then we are told that two of  the authors of the still-unpublished
>paper, Prum and Robbins,  have heard some Cornell sound recordings and
>pronounced that not one but two IBWO's really do exist in Arkansas. As a
>result,  everyone -- or at least nearly everyone --  suddenly seems to be
>satisfied that IBWO still lives after all.
>
>Who are Jackson, Prum and Robbins that they can turn the hopes and emotions
>of the birding community off and on like a light switch without actually
>publishing anything?  Has either Prum or Robbins ever heard an Ivory-billed
>Woodpecker? I doubt it. How is it then that their decree about the sound
>recordings is given such weight? Meanwhile, what has happened to the value
>of 16 recent sight observations of a male IBWO in Arkansas?  Have reports
>that Cornell's sound recordings persuaded Prum and Robbins to pull their 
>unpublished
>paper given back to the sight observers a credibility that leaks about the 
>paper took away?
>
>It is time to blame a usual suspect  -- "the media."  Please note that the
>principal sources for much of the now-ended "Ivory-bill Controversy" were
>newspaper stories.  I'm all for a constitutionally-protected free press. It
>must be allowed to do its job (selling newspapers). But the time and place
>for evaluating scientific claims is when they actually are published and
>answered in respected scientific journals. It's a frustratingly slow 
>process
>sometimes. But the end result is more reliable.
>
>Bob Fisher
>Independence, Missouri
>[log in to unmask]
>
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