The not-very-lost `lost city': how university press conference became a media event

Diane Johnson has learned the hard way that it doesn't pay to underestimate the allure of ancient legends. An information specialist with the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU), Ms. Johnson organized a press conference in February announcing that the university had signed an agreement with Peru to conduct a scientific investigation of a ``lost city'' in the rugged Andes. And she has been dismayed at the size of the controversy that erupted in its wake.

``It's a story that just won't die,'' Johnson laments with considerable exasperation.

The site in question is known as Gran Pajaten. It contains superbly preserved ruins of an unknown, apparently pre-Incan culture. The site is wreathed in dense rain forest and a shroud of clouds for nine months out of the year. So it fits to perfection the popular conception of the legendary lost city of the Incas where a great treasure was supposedly stashed to keep it out of the hands of the conquistadors.

A thorough reading of the CU press release, however, made it clear that the phrase ``lost city'' was figurative, rather than literal. In fact, the site has been known since the turn of the century. It even appears on some Peruvian tourist maps, although the extreme difficulty of reaching the area has kept visits to a handful.

Very little archaeological work has been done there. According to CU archaeologist Tom Lennon, the artifacts indicate that Gran Pajaten was the site of a unique and unknown culture from AD 500 to 1500. But the greatest scientific significance of the announcement was the fact that the CU scientists did not plan just another archaeological dig. Instead, the agreement specified a unique, multidisciplinary study of the culture and its effect on the environment. The effort might shed some light on how well tropical rain forests will respond to increasing present-day habitation.

At the press conference, the lure of the lost-city legend was immediately apparent. It attracted more media coverage than any other CU event, with the possible exception of the ups and downs of the football coaching staff and team a few years ago. Besides the Monitor, media carrying the story included the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlanta Journal, Associated Press, United Press International, ABC, CBS, MacNeil/Lehrer, National Public Radio's ``All Things Considered,'' Time, Newsweek, Science News, and Der Spiegel.

But for some the legend was headier than the science. The Washington Post and Associated Press mistakenly reported that the university people had discovered one of the fabled lost cities of the Andes. At the time, Ms. Johnson admits, she didn't worry too much about the misinterpretations. But then came the backlash.

The publications in question began receiving critical telephone calls and letters from people who had heard about the site before. Some people even remembered that it had been the subject of a television documentary more than 10 years ago, something the CU people say they had not known.

One group in particular took exception to the coverage. This was the South America Explorers Club in Denver. It announced that it would award a special ``Hoax of the Millennium'' trophy to Dr. Lennon and the three Colorado businessmen who had accompanied him on an expedition to the site. But in their Feb. 15 press conference the club contented itself with handing out ``I visited the lost city'' T-shirts.

The reaction has prompted a number of corrections and follow-up stories. Several of these implied that the university had been guilty of exaggerating the story in the first place.

``When questions arose about the significance of the research, few checked back with the university for clarifications or comments,'' Johnson writes in a summary of the event she has prepared for the National Association of Science Writers. ``Fewer still went back to the original press kit to see what the university had actually said. Some reporters even denied receiving the press kit before writing their pieces.''

Now, a third category of coverage is appearing: articles discussing the media aspects of the story. The magazine Science '85 has such a piece in press.

Perhaps the most serious repercussions of the situation is that it may increase the threat of looting at the site. For a period after the announcement, a Denver group advertised Gran Pajaten treks for $1,400 each, despite the fact that the area is in a national preserve and entry is restricted. Practically, however, the site's only protection has been its remoteness and the vigilance of the people in the nearest village. Now CU researchers say they must spend time and money to increase security there, Johnson reports.

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