Saturday, 14 March 2009

Media's reporting of scholarship

I was prepared to do another post on my television watching habits, but then I thought, you know, that's probably a bit excessive. So regardless of how offensive I found it that The History Channel *coughcough* could not find a single woman to appear in its hour-long show on the Second Punic War, you will not get a feminist rant from me tonight. Instead, you will get a rant on another form of media.


Oh, BBC News.

Many love you. I know I certainly appreciate your perspective and wide-angle news. Then again, I (currently) live in the US, where every news outlet covers the same 5 talking points ad nauseum. You provide a bit of colour and perspective to my news.

But I have a teensy bone to pick. Minutiae, really. Just details. But... could I ask if you might consider doing a little research before you report? Or perhaps finding someone who understands the topic to write about said topic?

The reason I ask is that recently, a number of your articles online have proved... how should I put this... erroneous? Misleading? Misguided? Poorly judged? I expect that you, of all news sources, know this already, but perhaps I should ask--

You do know that simply because someone says it is so, that doesn't make it so?

Right. Let me give you an example. Today, you posted an intriguing article entitled, "Caravaggio was early 'photographer'." I was very curious to see where this would lead. I am, after all, an art historian in dire need of employment. The subtitle to this lovely article was, "Caravaggio used an early form of photography to create his masterpieces - 200 years before the invention of the camera, a researcher has claimed."

Intriguing! I cried, hurrying to the body of the article.

And what did I find there? An unsubstantiated claim made by a "teacher"- whose only credentials, your article suggests, is that she's a "teacher" at a "prestigious" art school in Florence- and, as we all know, if you're from Florence, you know your art.

You, BBC News, provide evidence that this theory is brilliant and ground-breaking via the following:

She believes [Caravaggio] could have used a photoluminescent powder from crushed fireflies, which was used at the time to create special effects in theatre productions. "There is lots of proof, notably the fact that Caravaggio never made preliminary sketches. So it is plausible that he used these 'projections' to paint," she said.


Please note, one cannot demonstrate 'proof' of something by a lack of something else.

Before I let the snark run away with me any further, let me point out that Dr. Lapucci does in fact seem to be a reputable scholar who has made a career out of studying Caravaggio and thus, I would imagine, knows what she is talking about. This is not, in fact, the first time that a scholar has been made out to be an idiot in a BBC News article - nor the first time in the past two weeks. Despite how she is represented in this article, I would wager that there is, in fact, real evidence supporting her theory - evidence which I would love to hear about. But I certainly won't hear about it from this article.

BBC News clearly thinks its readers are morons. And perhaps we are. But may I venture that we have seen enough films about romantic artists throughout history - and that we all played with pinhole cameras in 3rd grade science - to recognize the term 'camera obscura'? You would suggest no, opting instead to describe Caravaggio as "illuminat[ing] his models through a hole in the ceiling."

A skylight, perhaps?

All right, I've finished: I'll be serious now. Upon the first reading of this article, I laughed very hard. How absurd- proposing that Caravaggio used crushed fireflies to fix the image on his canvas, solely on the evidence that he used left-handed models and that there aren't any surviving sketches? Good lord! What pathetic drivel! Upon reassessment, of course, I realized that the absurdity was not in the theory, but in the reporting. Dr. Lapucci probably released a great deal of information about this theory, but whoever wrote this dreadful article could not pick out enough information to provide a coherent understanding of the theory. S/he had to conclude with a vigorous insistence that "such techniques did not detract from the artist's work." Well, thank you for the clarification - but perhaps we could focus on how innovative this technique was?

I understand the need for short, pithy articles for the website - but the many misleading articles I have read on the BBC News site recently are not just short on information, but painting an entirely insufficient picture of the news they are supposedly reporting. Many scholars have "ground-breaking" theories, and push scholarship ahead almost daily. Of course I believe that more of these theories should be widely publicized, but certainly not at the expense of an accurate representation. No matter how fascinating I find this, Dr. Lapucci's theory is no more important than the theories being put forward by other scholars in journals and books all the time. God only knows how BBC News got hold of this scholarship, but in light of how it - and many other morsels of research - has been reported, I would suggest that we all keep our work close to the vest, and out of their prying fingers.

Spitefully yours,

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