The Art of Selling a Mule Story

I’m convinced that there are two distinct career paths in journalism. One is (hypothetically speaking) the journalist proper who pens a well-written piece showing the different, nuanced aspects of a story. The other one is the title editor, whose job it is to capture the essence of the story in a short and concise title that entices the reader. However, more often than not (perhaps especially in the click-bait ridden Internet nowadays) the title editor overdoes it, giving priority to catching the reader’s attention over accuracy.

I was reminded again of this problem when reading the following story of a recent archeological discovery (hat tip to Reddit). The article relates the very interesting discovery of a 5th-century cemetery in France’s Lorraine region, which borders Germany. They discovered of eight human remains and one horse burial dates from a couple of months, but now the analysis of that skeleton has shown an even more interesting thing. The horse was in fact a mule, a hybrid made by mating a female horse with a male donkey.

However, the title read “Archeologists shocked by mule in […] tomb.” Of course I had to click it. But after reading it I do have a problem with the word “shocked.” Yes indeed that is quite a discovery. As the article correctly explains, finding a horse in a 5th-century burial is quite rare (it became less rare in the 6th and 7th century). One can surmise that the adult buried close to it was probably the owner, and a well-off person with probably a high standing in the community.

A mule, which is rarer, could indicate that the owner was even better off. A mule has the sturdiness of a donkey, with the posture and strength of a horse. In a rural community, that is a big boost to productivity and owning one might only have been possible for the privileged. That it was killed and then placed very carefully and deliberately in the tomb with its owner not only shows how respected said owner was, but also the respect towards the animal.

But still, “shocked”? The archeologists in the article show their surprise at the find and eagerness to learn more. They perhaps even had their egos boosted by this fortuitous discovery. Sure enough, the title likely helped to catch additional readers, and overall, it is very good that there is news about archeological analysis (which can take months, even years) and not just when the stuff gets found in the ground. But “surprised” would have worked as well in this context I think, and would have been more correct.

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website:
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5 Responses to The Art of Selling a Mule Story

  1. Personally I would have said “Archaeologists interested by mule in tomb…” so you can guess why I couldn’t sell a mule skeleton to a soup company, let alone to jaded readers.

    “Small earthquake in China; no harm done.”
    “Jackpot winner nets $112.49”
    “Last year’s beauty queen poses in last year’s swimsuit”
    “New York has first average annual rainfall in two years”
    “Fourth fastest sprinter of 1998 interested in philately”
    “Runner-up in lawn bowls championship considers taking up golf.”
    “How to purvey boredom for chronic snorers”
    Whoops, sorry, I dropped off there.

  2. Jeff Grigg says:

    The title of this blog post should be “Skeptic finds God in Science Article!!!!!”

    (You’re just not going to make it far, as a title editor! 😉

  3. Bill Kowalski says:

    If you were to write an app that would delete every internet story teaser that had some form of the word “shock”, we would be treated to a great deal of peaceful blank space.

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