Why Journalism Is Screwed (And Obsessed With Dinosaur Sex)
Early Thursday morning, I came across this Daily Mail story about how dinosaurs had sex, because I've organized my life in such a way that if articles featuring scientifically frank depictions of dinosaur humping get published, I will always know about it.
Immediately, my Spider Sense told me that something wasn't quite right about this article, and I'll get into that (and specifically what it means for online journalism), but I think we should probably break down the article itself first.
"The Joy of T-Rex," the horribly titled article in question, tells us that a number of paleontologists have been studying dinosaur mating habits for quite some time and have come to the conclusion that the dinosaurs did it doggy style. Surprise! To support this claim, they have a quote from an assistant professor of biology ...
... and the story also features "scientific illustrations" to give us a visual of what this dinosaur sex might look like. Now, I'm not a dinosaur-fuck-biologist/artist (yet. Fingers crossed!), but I do know right off the bat that whoever drew these pictures was masturbating.
There's not a doubt in my mind. No judgment, of course, but let's call this what it is. If your job as a science illustrator is to show people what it looked like when dinosaurs had sex, then your job stops at positioning. You don't include clearly humanoid facial expressions of orgasmic ecstasy for science, you do that for your own agenda.
Again, no judgment, but, you know, lots of judgment.
So, already, there is something spurious about this article, and not just because the ratio of scientific words to pictures of dinosaurs displaying varying stages of "o-face" skews heavily in favor of the latter ...
... but we'll get to the latter later. First, I need to explain how this story, like the eager Pelecanimimus in the above picture, spread and spread and spread.
Sex Goes Viral ...
Not too long after the Daily Mail's article went live did it get picked up by a hundred and fifty thousand other blogs, including the Huffington Post.
HuffPo uses about 400 words to say what the Daily Mail said in a single Pentaceratops moan, covering the same ground and helping spread the story all over the Internet. HuffPo even has a slideshow with some additional illustrations of dinosaur sex, which ... I don't know, is that a good thing? Life's pretty weird, sometimes.
The story started popping up on Tumblr, Twitter and anywhere else on the Internet where a market for dinosaur sex exists (re: everywhere on the Internet). It seemed everyone I knew was talking about dinosaur sex, which, sure, sounds like a dream come true, but I still couldn't get over the fact that something about this article was odd ...
Something's Familiar ...
Much to your either amazement or disappointment, depending on whether or not you and I are soul mates, I can prove I wasn't lying earlier when I said I read every dinosaur-humping-related news story I can get my hands on. Something about this story was familiar to me, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Then it hit me: Everything about this story was familiar, because someone had done this article already, and not just somebody -- The Daily Mail.
It's almost the exact same article with a slightly better title, I guess. ("Tyrannosaurus Sex?" "JurASSic Park?" "Velocirapture?" I came up with those in like eight seconds, and I don't even write about Stegosaurus dicks professionally.) This article, which was published by a different Daily Mail author back in February, also treats the "dinosaurs had sex like dogs" tidbit like it was some big, new revelation. And because I'm convinced there's some kind of underground committee that gives awards to the laziest journalists, both articles feature the same quote from the same source.
There's also some mild dinosaur porn in the old version:
Sure, the scientific illustrations weren't as graphic and deeply unsettling in the old article, but finding an illustrator who was the right combination of scientist and pervert isn't reason enough to rewrite the exact same story and pretend it's new news.
Hey, speaking of "new" and "news," there was something else that bothered me about these articles. Specifically, their newness and newsiness ...
The New News Isn't New and Even the Old News Wasn't New News When It Was New
(Jesus. Who am I to criticize people's titling decisions?)
If you're anything like me, then you know that New Jersey State Museum research associate Brian Switek is the closest thing the Internet has to an expert on dinosaur sex. (Spoiler: You are nothing like me, and you never will be.) Switek has a history of writing very thoughtful and informative essays about dinosaur sex, so I naturally assumed that if some clown at the Daily Mail was going to start stepping onto Switek's turf, he'd have something to say about it. I was right. In his essay on Wired, Switek also acknowledges that the July version of this story ripped off the February version, and he goes on to say that, even back in February, there was no reason to write the story in the first place. Even though both Daily Mail articles treat the sex reveal like some big, breaking story, Switek assures us that there hasn't been a new study on the topic in a long time. No new information on dinosaur sex in February or July, but that didn't stop the Daily Mail from getting you to stop what you were doing to pay attention to these dinosaur dicks right this second.
Also? They're Wrong
According to Switek (the only person in this situation who vaguely resembles an authority), "We really don't have a refined idea of dinosaur sex positions." Daily Mail reports that a T. rex penis is about 12 feet long, even though we've still never found a fossil of a dinosaur penis.
We put a man on the moon and made a cheeseburger entirely out of ground bacon, but I still can't take my nephew to a museum and show him a brontosaurus dick. Life, right?
In Conclusion ...
A crappy British tabloid republishes a bullshit study it published six months ago and the Internet picks it up and runs with it. It's already made its way around the Internet twice, I'd imagine, before Switek's article debunking it could even get its pants on.
I've written about the Internet's total inability to accurately report on news in the past, because it's a subject that completely fascinates me, and because I'd like us to try to be better. Aaron Sorkin's new show, The Newsroom, is about a news anchor who is sick of the modern state of broadcast journalism and longs for "The good ol' days," when real, honest, legitimate news was done by real newsmen.
These are the Internet's good ol' days. We're still so young as a "thing" and we're already spreading lies about T. rex dicks. I am by NO means saying we should stop talking about dinosaur penises. Just that we should be honest about it.
Daniel O'Brien is Cracked.com's senior writer (ladies), and he will be at Comic-Con all weekend long if you want to meet up and talk about dinosaur sex (no other topics will be discussed). Follow him on Twitter to find out about spontaneous San Diego Cracked meet-ups.
For more from Dan, check out 4 Reasons to Hate Comic-Con and Proposed Script for Spider-Man 4: The Grittiest Reboot Ever.