News Media

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A Crystal Triangle

One of the most important and complex sources of our information and misinformation about astronomy and other natural sciences are the news media. Media information is so important because it is ubiquitous. Whether from television, radio, print, or the Internet, news stories about science are often our first sources of information about interesting and important scientific discoveries. As long as we trust the news source, we are apt to accept the validity of its reportage more readily than if the same information came by word of mouth from a friend or from a novel. Friends were the first to tell me that President Kennedy had been shot, but I didn't really believe it until I heard it from Walter Cronkite, then the CBS Evening News anchor.

The complexity of this source of information and misinformation stems from a complicated and tense interpersonal triangle among ourselves as receivers of news, the people who report the news, and the sources of news. Scientists and the media have a true love-hate relationship. Most scientists love to have their work publicized but often hate the way the news stories come out. Professional science reporters love gaining access to sources of fresh, exciting stories, but they hate being manipulated or misguided by scientists who have hidden agendas. Scientists who provide timely, interesting, and accurate information are courted by reporters and therefore have easy access to the media. However, as is true in many other realms of life, these relationships often sour. This is likely to occur when reporters discover that their scientist-contacts are poor communicators of their work or do not provide accurate, complete, or useful information. Conversely, scientists stop providing information when they perceive that their work is presented with a biased slant or distorted in the press.

As an example of the latter, scientists often believe that important scientific results are obscured in news reports, while minor research points are given overblown coverage. Consider the Hubble Space Telescope, for example. It was designed primarily to study the cosmos far from the Earth, including distant galaxies, quasars, stars, and interstellar gas, among other things. Yet most of the results about distant objects are less interesting to the public than results about planets. Therefore, planetary data from Hubble get a much larger percentage of press coverage, relative to the amount of time observed, than do data on more distant objects. For example, did you catch the press release on the October 1999 results of Hubble's study of bulges in spiral galaxies? Or how about the incredibly significant discovery of inter-galactic hydrogen? The latter is important in helping astronomers understand the distribution of matter and determine the fate of the universe.

Hubble is also excellent at producing spectacular pictures, which understandably get maximum press coverage. Yet the underlying science related to these observations rarely gets disseminated. Most people saw the wonderful images of the gas pillars in the Eagle Nebula; few nonastronomers understand the important information about star formation gleaned from them. These images create an impression of the glamour of science in the public mind that is not entirely realistic. The process of transforming most telescope data into accurate and meaningful images is long, involved, unglamorous, and exacting. Make a mistake in one of dozens of parameters or steps in the analysis and you will get inaccurate images.

Nevertheless, scientists often want to know why their important observations, experiments, and theories don't get media coverage. The fact is, most of what we do would appear boring to the general public. It would take much more air time or many more column inches to explain than the media have available. Also, much of what scientists do is more tentative than the media care to tell or the public cares to know about.

The reality is that everything in science is tentative. Tomorrow's experiment, observation, or theory may well show that current beliefs need revision or replacement. However, our minds work differently. Most of us usually take what we hear or see and accept it as "fact." Once we do this, it is very hard to change our belief on the subject. There was a Hubble photograph that appeared to show an extrasolar (i.e., outside of our solar system) planet being ejected from its birthplace, a binary star system (pair of stars orbiting each other).9 The Space Telescope Science Institute, which runs the Hubble Space Telescope, reported this finding even before it was published in a refereed journal (which it eventually was). Virtually everyone who heard or read of this discovery therefore believed that such a free-flying planet had been discovered. However, further observations indicated that this object isn't a planet at all. Rather, it is probably a background star superimposed on the closer binary star system and its associated gases. A retraction was published by the Space Telescope Science Institute, but this meant that the media had to acknowledge that a previously reported piece of news was wrong. The news in the retraction was also much less exciting than the concept of an ejected planet, so it got much less press coverage than the initial discovery. Furthermore, many of the people who did learn of the correction promptly forgot it, retaining the belief that the object was an ejected planet.

Such experiences contribute to the love-hate relationship between scientists and the media. Many scientists want their work publicized, for either fame or the possibility of increased funding, but they often question the accuracy of the news items based on their work. Likewise, media people are aware that different scientists have different temperaments and have to be "handled" in different ways.

The relationship between the media and us, the public as consumers, is another complicating factor. Experience shows that news consumers respond more to what they perceive as "exciting" or even sensational information than to solid but boring scientific results. Which would you rather hear about: the possibility that a "large" asteroid will strike the Earth (that event will almost certainly happen, but probably not for tens of millions of years) or that surface scientists have developed a new way to deposit copper on a silicon substrate? In fact, the latter is much more important to your life because

9 More stars are formed in binary systems than are formed in isolation, like the Sun. Indeed, at least half of all the objects you see as "stars" in the night sky are actually binary star systems. This means that two thirds of all the stars in our neighborhood of the galaxy are in binary star systems.

it would enable computers to run faster, cooler, and more cheaply, but it sounds boring.

Therefore, reporters and news writers have to find a balance between exciting material and sensationalism. A red warning light should go off in your head every time you hear of a scientific "breakthrough." These are truly rare events, since science is mostly an accumulative process rather than a continuous series of profound changes. When we news consumers hear too many sensational claims in the media, we grow wary of both the reporters and the scientists whose claims don't hold up. This is a healthy response, but it can also prevent us from appreciating valuable scientific information when it does come along.

A Minute Forty-five

Misunderstandings that develop from news sources can be analyzed at another level. Most news media operate under a variety of constraints that frame the news as it is disseminated. Perhaps the greatest constraint for television and radio is time. A typical half-hour television news broadcast contains about twenty-two minutes of information, covering about eight items. When science does make it to "prime time," the item gets less than the average amount of air time—roughly a minute and forty-five seconds. That isn't enough for the reporter to give you both sufficient background and sufficient depth to make sense out of anything. Typical television coverage of a science news item provides as much information as you read on one page of this book.

There are, of course, hour-long news shows, but even their time constraints are significant. Better yet are documentaries about just a few items, or documentaries exclusively devoted to science. Even in these best of circumstances, I am told by friends and acquaintances in the industry, a large fraction of each science news item must be omitted.

News magazines have similar issues, in the form of how many words or column inches can be devoted to any given article. Typical science news articles in The New York Times equal about two pages in this book.

To Inform and Entertain

So what information about science do we get from the media? To keep our attention and their ratings, the media usually provide the most entertaining and provocative information as determined by the reporter and his or her editor. With rare exceptions, neither of these people is a research scientist who knows the "big picture" about the scientific specialties they are asked to report on. Even the best science writers know only a few fields of science well. As a result, we are often provided with "gee whiz" information, such as Hubble Space Telescope images, that excites but is not the crucial scientific result. Indeed, we are often misled about the importance of many findings by emphasis on the wrong issues.

Related to the "gee whiz" factor is the perceived need of reporters to give a "balanced" perspective about news. In the normal scheme of things, this makes sense. Hearing other points of view often helps us understand controversial issues. With few exceptions, political issues have at least two valid perspectives, even though most of us tend to side firmly (blindly?) with one or the other.

This is often true in science, as with the question in the mid-twentieth century of whether the universe formed from an initial explosion (Big Bang model) or has existed forever (Steady State model). Predictions and subsequent observation eventually revealed that the Steady State model is incorrect. However, in science there are many theories, observations, and experiments that are much more strongly supported by one scientific interpretation than by any other. That doesn't mean this interpretation is "right," but rather that all other present explanations are considered fringe points ofview by most of the scientific community. Today, for example, there is no scientifically viable model of the creation of the universe besides the Big Bang, so if news coverage is given to alternative theories of how the universe formed, they should be considered suspect. The problem is that when alternative viewpoints are presented in science news, it is often hard for the public to know how reputable they and their sources are.

Even when reporters have identified the crucial concepts scientists are studying, they often do not have the time either to digest what they have been told or to explain the concepts well enough for their listeners or viewers to comprehend the underlying science. A superficial discussion of an interesting topic will often lead the public to fill in the blanks with their own homemade explanations, which frequently contain incorrect beliefs.

It is worth noting that some publications purport to provide news but are only out to make money by exploiting human gullibility. Anyone who believes what they read in the tabloid newspapers, Star, National Enquirer, Globe, or Weekly World News is bound to develop an incorrect understanding of the natural world.

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