Saturday, April 16, 2005

COM: Pet Peeve #642

This is one in which today i give some halfway kudos to The Associated Press for coming close to getting something right that mainstream media NEVER get right.

It has to do with the proper use of biological nomenclature. There's not a taxonomist in the world that can't tell you silly stories about media getting this wickedly wrong.

I worked for newspapers for a total of about 12 years and i could convince only one editor to let me do things properly. So, for a short time, The Kerrville Mountain Sun got things right -- in my articles or outside articles that i edited. Kudos to the then Sun, which shortly after i got there was sold to a couple of idiots who thought it was a cash cow and promptly milked it into oblivion. Now it's a sellout ad rag for the local daily, a disgusting waste.

But i digress. In today's story about some slime-mold beetles and the slimy pseudo-biologists who shamed the beetles with the names they placed on them, The AP (via CNN) came close to getting the scientific names rendered correctly.

Here's what they did right -- they capitalized the genus and lower-cased the specific epithet. They even added the authors' names, which is not a requirement for usage, but helps in synonymy.

Here's where they didn't quite get there: in context the name should always be italicized; and the authors' names are not part of the species' name though they claim so by using the IUCZN as an authority (which they are -- the authority, but . . .).

The problem is in the use of what's know as a stylebook. The various wire-services publish stylebooks to lend consistency to the periodically printed word. In the old days it was something of a battle as to whether your paper used the AP or the UPI stylebook.

In either case, no allowances were made for biological convention. No matter how hard i tried to explain, as a biologist myself, that there was no leeway for some paper editor to change the International Rules of Zoological Nomenclature, somehow they managed to anyway.

The italics thing is only the frosting on the cake, the tip of the iceberg. That i could live with (if begrudgingly), and is why i'm cutting AP some slack here. Eds always insisted on either A) capitalizing both the genus and specific epithet (heresy!), or B) lower-casing both (the inanity!). I was embarrassed no end.

These days, i still cringe when i see mistakes like this in the media. Today i was pleased to see The AP got this right, even if the nincompoop biologists provided their own sordid embarrassment.

I should note too that AP eds must've felt so out-of-sorts with having to print a scientific name correctly (after probably nixing some poor reporter's accurate use of italics) that they devoted an entire paragraph to explaining why the name was written as it was (which they goofed on in some part).

Editors, get it right. Accuracy is accuracy, even if you don't like the way it looks, even if it's not in your stylebook, and even if you're going to screw up everything else.

Here's the story.


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