Harp seals and ice: Media and hype

[photo size=’medium’ align=’right’]http://superpod.ml.duke.edu/johnston/files/2012/01/Seal-26th007.jpg[/photo]It’s been 13 days since our paper about changing sea ice conditions in breeding regions of harp seals was published in PLoS ONE. It has been incredibly interesting to watch the story propagate through the worlds media channels, both traditional and online. As a scientist, I’m increasingly interested in how science is portrayed to the general public and how they access the information. In this context, I think it is becoming more and more important for scientists to be advocates for good science, especially their own.

We have a great media team at the Nicholas School, and Tim Lucas (Director of Marketing Communications) has been tracking how our story was covered in these various news channels. He has provided me with an update on some of these numbers that I’d like to share with anyone who is interested, to illustrate how widely distributed the release of our paper was. I did a bunch of media interviews for these stories, and many of those who interviewed me also interviewed other researchers who study harp seals. In general, I think the initial coverage was quite good, accurately reflecting our conclusions. Here is a summary of the coverage (thanks again to Tim Lucas for rounding this stuff up):


  • The New York Times 1/5/2012
  • BBC News 1/5/2012 (distributed worldwide)
  • Canadian Press 1/5/2012 (distributed nationwide)
  • Postmedia News 1/4/2012 (distributed nationwide)
  • Ottawa Citizen 1/5/2012
  • Agence France-Presse 1/4/2012 (distributed worldwide)
  • The Guardian 1/5/2012
  • CBC News 1/5/2012 (distributed nationwide)
  • Huffington Post 1/4/2012
  • Sydney Morning Herald 1/7/2012 (distributed nationwide)
  • Scientific American 1/5/2012
  • Yahoo News 1/4/2012
  • Int’l Business News 1/5/2012 (distributed worldwide)
  • National Geographic News 1/6/2012
  • Decoded Science 1/9/2012
  • Environmental News Network 1/9/2012 (distributed worldwide)
  • Switchboard/NRDC 1/9/2012
  • Mongabay.com 1/11/2012
A number of newspapers and other media outlets ran stories based on the major new sources listed above. Tim was able to parse a lot of information out of the news stream to give us a pretty good idea of how many stories were run:
We are able to track 551 placements worldwide using free Google, Yahoo and Nexus/Lexus basic and advanced search engines. Of these, most have been in international print or online media outlets, with the AFP, BBC and Postmedia stories getting the broadest distribution. Heaviest coverage was, predictably, in Canada and, more generally, North America and Europe, but stories also showed up in Tehran, Jakarta, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Auckland, India and other far-flung cities and geographic regions.
It is much harder to determine how frequently the story was covered by non-major online news portals and other social media channels. Tim did some sleuthing about and this is what he came up with:
Using keyword searches conducted on Google and Yahoo search engines, I am able to tell you that on Friday, Jan. 6, there were about 40,500 items that showed up when I searched for “Duke University”/harp seals.  On Friday, Jan. 13, there were 41,300. Searching for “Duke”/harp seals, I found 67,000 or so items on 1/6, and about 83,000 individual searchable items on 1/13. These numbers SUGGEST that a sizeable number of people have blogged about it, linked to it on their websites or Facebook pages, or tweeted or re-tweeted it.  I have no means of actually analyzing these numbers with any accuracy, so all I can say for sure is:  It got noticed by a lot of people.

This is pretty amazing coverage. Clearly a small portion of the information returned by these searches pertains to some of our previous work, but those papers were never covered in the media the way this one was.

It is also really interesting to see how the story morphed over time, with headlines and content shifting away from the results of the study to more editorialized content, often mixed with other stories about climate change or natural resource management. In particular many of the later stories ending up linking climate change with observed declines in the abundance of harp seals, which is something that we did not demonstrate in the study – that’s hype. Simply put – Harp seals are not endangered, and only time will tell if current conditions will contribute to major declines in their overall numbers. Here is Tim’s take on this hype:

If you go back and read the major media coverage, the first ones tended to hew pretty closely to the original news release and peer-reviewed paper. In other words, they more or less got the science right and reached reasonable conclusions.

By two or three days after the paper’s release, however, we see spin beginning to occur, and find that much of the second-generation of coverage is beginning to become more opinionated, editorialized or inaccurate.

In an interview for the Fisheries Broadcast on CBC Radio Newfoundland, I was asked by the host Brian Callahan about the source of people’s interest in this study, and what would drive such an incredible media barrage. Honestly, I believe that people are generally concerned about climate change, and that stories that link climate change to obvious environmental phenomena (like declining sea ice) and charismatic megafauna (like seal pups – check the article feature picture above) are the killer combination in terms of rapid social radiation and amplification of a story. The final, and perhaps most important part of the puzzle is open access publishing itself. Not only are people concerned about the changing climate, and tend to focus on lovable animals, but they had immediate access to the information. The paper is accessible to everyone via the PLoS ONE website – no subscriptions, no logins, no charges – free for everyone, everywhere.

I think the fact that the story was covered by Gizmodo (a popular technology weblog about consumer electronics) pretty much says it all. While the story in Gizmodo has some issues in terms of properly describing the reproductive biology of harp seals, I laughed aloud when I read the first few lines:

Harp seals use sea ice as their chilly love nests, and after the lovin’ leads to babies, parents nurse for just 12 days before the pups are on their own. 

I can only hope that Gizmodo will cover the second version of our new digital textbook for marine science – Cachalot – with similar flair!