Balmy weather, barmy headlines

Richard Harrington By: Richard Harrington
Date posted: 31 July 2018

Summer can be a silly season when it comes to media reporting. It’s fun, and forgiveable, to fill pages with light reading away from politics and the economy, while public figures, and many journalists, are away on their holidays.

There’s room for stories about the weather, amusing and clever antics by animals, crop circles and the rest on slow news days. But this needs to be done well so as not to actually mislead the public. Misreporting, and fake news, isn’t acceptable, as Facebook’s current ad campaign will tell you.

Usually, editors give attention to keeping things factual, or might at the very least flag the occasional fact of uncertain origin with a “reported” or “alleged” precursor to signal to the reader when something is being reported indirectly.

Jellyfish happen to appear very frequently in the silly season. A string of reports about jellyfish have sprung up recently, as there have been lots spotted with the warm, sunny weather. The trouble is, some of the articles come with more than just a smattering of sensationalism, and some dubious reporting accuracy.

Today’s headline in the Express is “Run for your life! Warning as dangerous giant Lion’s Mane jellyfish invade UK beaches”. Dr Peter Richardson, MCS Head of Ocean Recovery, is quoted – talking about the almost-entirely-harmless barrel jellyfish. The quote definitely adds weight to the article, and, I would suggest, gives the impression that the journalist may have spoken to him. He hadn’t. Peter’s name is even part of the page name at https://www.express.co.uk/news/nature/996558/invasion-sinister-giant-jellyfish-walney-island-dr-peter-richardson.

This is just one of a line of reports in which quotes from Dr Richardson, originally given in media releases we’ve sent in previous years, is now reappearing; it’s floating in to add credence to articles on jellyfish all these years later. Other examples come from the 2nd July, in Daily Star “Brit beaches brace for invasion of deadly jellyfish as heatwave continues” and The Sun “Heatwave ‘bringing deadly Portuguese man o’ war towards British beaches’”.

Little of the contents of these articles is true. There are some reports which mix the interest and intrigue of jellies with a truer picture of what is going on, including in the Express https://www.express.co.uk/news/nature/987979/fisherman-spots-jellyfish-turn-british-sea-into-a-marvel and elsewhere https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-44950579 when the reporter spoke to our “Dr Jelly” in person.

The fact is, Jellyfish naturally bloom when conditions are suitable – warmth and sunshine trigger their appearance, and their numbers build up in calm conditions. There are lots around right now. We should be alarmed if they don’t appear, as they are a staple food source for several marine animals, including turtles and fish.

Jellyfish aren’t generally a staple food for sharks, but, it should also be clarified, nor are humans. That hasn’t stopped a recent push to publicise shark programmes on TV leading to headlines like “Killers swimming to our shores” (The Express again). Under massive threat from human pressures, it really doesn’t help a shark’s cause.

The message to journalists and their editors: - keep the stories coming, but please try to do better with the truth. Keep the facts from the science fiction!