DHS Squirrel

Malaysia: Impact of Media

Developments in Malaysia are being covered by world media.

The behavior of the world media will probably not be chronicled by the world media, but it is a story in itself.

It is a relevant issue, because media pressure has affected organized scientific inquiry on this subject in the past.

In 1995 the Anthropology Department at Ohio State University (OSU) halted DNA tests on possible giganto hairs from China because of the disruptions caused by a wave of press inquiries.

The amount of phone calls and visits from journalists seeking to quote the scientists involved in the DNA study was extremely disruptive to the normal workings of the department. The scientists involved in the study were also professors, who didn't have loads of spare time to begin with. Handling the wave of press contacts became a full-time job, for people who already had full-time jobs. The department also began to worry about negative news stories from vindictive journalists who weren't getting their calls returned.

After a certain point, the Anthropology Department at OSU began answering the calls and telling inquirers, without explanation, that the department was not going to continue with the DNA analysis. It was the easiest way to make the problem go away.

It will not be a good thing for the progress of science if the same thing happens in Malaysia. Hopefully the Malaysians involved will learn from history and hold steady, and not let antagonistic media or occasional critics deter them.

The Malaysian officials and naturalists involved are doing their jobs, speaking openly and providing information to questions from reporters. They speak about it because they are asked. The officials are not trying to push the story, but we can already see some arrogant, smug journalists accusing the Malaysians of "staging a publicity stunt." A recent Reuters.UK article carries that spin.

The spin is disgusting. It is arrogant. It is the sort of thing that interferes with scientific inquiry.

The inquiry in Malaysia is not occurring for the purpose of press coverage. Rather, it is occurring in spite of press coverage.

It is dispicable for a journalist to accuse government officials, in this case, of creating publicity when it is journalists themselves who are causing the publicity. The hypocrisy of the Reuters contributor is his implication that the Malaysians are cooking up the story because of the new King Kong movie. It is the Reuters contributor who is taking advantage of the new King Kong movie.

Malaysian villagers are reporting sightings of giant apes ("bigfoots"). Giant apes were thought to be extinct by western scientists. Malaysian officials are taking their citizens seriously and letting them know it is important for them to report these sightings. This is the type of respectful, encouraging, official stance that is sorely lacking in other countries where these sightings occur.

Should the matter be ignored by Malaysian officials? Is it a "publicity stunt" for them to openly state that their citizens are reporting sightings, and that there's a real possibility, and that it might be a good thing for the country?

Unlike most American scientists, Malaysian scientists do not stick to a party line that assumes all their major fauna have been discovered. It is not a career-killer for Malaysians to consider that some large animals might not be catalogued there.

Long-ago some crude, urban, American journalists reported about some footprints in Northern California. They began to refer jokingly to a lonely, giant character, which they named "Bigfoot" in the late 1950's. Newspapers far and wide have had fun with that character ever since. Over the years the "Bigfoot" name and image has been used to sell products, like tires, shovels and RVs.

The most prominent use of "Bigfoot" has been in headlines of "The Weekly World News" (WWN). People don't often buy the WWN, but every American and Canadian looks at it at least sometimes. WWN headlines have excellent penetration among rural people who don't read newspapers, or watch TV, or listen to the radio. We don't know if the WWN was created for this purpose, but we do know it had the effect of shaming rural people from trying to ask serious questions about these animals.

After years of "Bigfoot" being presented as a joke, it has become difficult for American journalists to separate the tabloid character from the rest of the story. It requires a good bit of reading now to understand some basic facts about it. Reading and research does not work well for ignorant, simple-minded American TV jounalists these days, especially at ABC.

The Malaysian situation may proceed differently. Their officials, scientists and naturalists might not submit to pressure from arrogant, ridiculing, western journalists. The sightings might be taken very seriously from this point forward, even if the witnesses are just poor villagers who don't have any physical evidence to prove what they saw.

Update: 2-1-2006

There is an individual's story in the background of the Malaysia story. For some time Malaysian environmentalist Vincent Chow had lobbied Malaysian authorities to take the sightings seriously and speak openly about them. Chow eventually succeeded, where no man had succeeded before. It was like moving a huge, heavy stone that had seemed unmoveable to everyone else.

We wish we could have been a "fly on the wall" during that divine moment when Chow finally made officials see the light, and think rationally about the sightings, and the enormity of what they may point to.


How many other current stories from Malaysia are being followed in this many countries?

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