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  1. News! • Pair of extrasolar planets detected around a binary star • “Tatooine” analogy quickly applied by nearly all news outlets Artists conception, from NASA press release

  2. Science • Kepler satellite, exact idea to what Brett and Harley talked about • Satellite views big area of sky in Milky Way, does photometry to look for transits • Found a binary star system, with two planets that transit in front of the stars • Last year, same story, single planet

  3. Kepler 47 • One star like Sun, one a lot cooler and smaller • Inner planet ~3x Earth size, outer planet about size of Uranus • Transits: 0.08% difference in photometry, 0.2% difference in photometry • Summer Venus transit about 0.1% • Idea of “habitable zone” • Outer planet is in it! Although large climate variation due to binary star

  4. Locations of PlanetsRelative to Solar System

  5. From Scientists to You • How did this get to be a news item? • Today we’ll discuss how the news media covers astronomy • Preliminary discussion of where people get their science news • History of science reporting • What makes good science reporting (and good science)? Why do scientists need journalists?

  6. Science News Sources • How do people get their science news? • 61% from TV • 49% from newspapers* and magazines • 28% from the internet • 26% from listening to radio • 22% from specialized press • Eurobarometer 2007, Scientific Research in the Media • Similar numbers for USA

  7. *Dedicated News Sections in Papers • Science sections added to newspapers (usually once a week) • 1984: 19 papers • 1986: 66 papers • 1989: 95 papers • Decline again thereafter… papers losing readers to TV, internet. Lost advertising dollars kill off the less dramatic newspaper sections.

  8. Sobering Realities • How much of TV news is actually science reporting? • How many adults can fully read and understand the science sections of newspapers? • What is astronomy’s share of science reporting?

  9. Brief History of Modern Science Reporting • WWI gives impetus to science reporting • German application of chemicals and technology to warfare • Post-WWI science is a means to ends • Technology making life better (products) • Danger: science becomes more specialized, greater gulf between scientists and public (refer to Einstein)

  10. History: 1920’s • Scripps forms the Science Service in 1921 • First syndicate for distribution of science news • Science held in highest regard; focus more on reporting directly from science organizations than on being an independent news service • Emphasize “the importance of scientific research to the prosperity of the nation and as a guide to sound thinking and living” • Board members were generally scientists • Still in existence (National Science Fair, Science News publication) • Random aside: Scripps also started UPI

  11. History: 1920’s • William Laurence (NY Times): “True descendents of Prometheus, science writers take the fire from the scientific Olympus, the laboratories and universities, and bring it down to the people.” • Note: very romanticized, not as objective as the ideals of journalism would suggest

  12. History: 1930’s • National Association of Science Writers founded 1934 to “foster the dissemination of accurate information regarding science through all media normally devoted to informing the public; and shall foster the interpretation of science and its meaning to society, in keeping with the highest standards of journalism” • the “free flow of science news” • Still in existence

  13. NASW: Code of Ethics • Be apolitical (unbiased) • Can be “political” over issues related to free flow of information (e.g., against censorship) or issues of public importance in keeping with highest standards of journalism • Do not accept funding from organizations if conflict of interest • Note: intent is more the ideal of journalism - be informative, yet critical • Added note: about half their members are science PR office people at universities and institutions

  14. How Science is Reported: A Race? • Often reported as a “race” or competition • Research groups vying to be first to some end goal • Example: Nobel prizes, and country-specific tallies like Olympic medal counts • Nobel as obvious public status symbol • Is “race” a real depiction of science? • Sometimes yes (pragmatic), by definition no

  15. How Science is Reported: Human Interest • Often as human interest story • Difficulty in explaining the science, so focus on the scientist • Scientist as non-human • Work “beyond the grasp of normal people” • Totally immersed in work: long hours, neglect other concerns (absent-minded) • Moral/ethical bastion: science is pure • Unfairly often different for women • Portrayed more for stereotype roles, found in different magazines or paper sections

  16. How Science is Reported: Human Interest • Dangers: • View scientists as intellectually superior, then give credence to areas well outside their expertise (e.g., politics) • Foolishly anti-science! Science emphasizes asking questions, thinking and not blind acceptance of others’ statements • View scientists as moral and pure, then create vast disillusionment when un-ethical behavior is found • Reports of falsified data, stolen findings • Ponds & Fleishman, Challenger disaster

  17. A Scientific View of Reporting • One of the keys to good science is to investigate forms of bias • ALL writing (and scientists, too) is biased • Writers gather information, make sense of it, try to put together a good story • Hence, they represent a filter • While the above description of a journalist’s role sounds a lot like science, it also leads to distrust • Scientist “cover all the bases”: lay out all the facts very carefully, quantify probabilities, await PEER review. Press publishes quick hits often without the uncertainties.

  18. Types of Bias • Courtesy of Brooke Gladstone and First Year Book: • Commercial Bias need for stories to be new and novel. (first! Biggest! Etc.) • Bad News Bias people care more about things that might be a threat. • Status Quo Bias people resist change. • Access Bias don’t bite the hand that feeds you (keep sources secret, don’t rock the boat for fear of losing future stories)

  19. Types of Bias (Gladstone) • Visual Bias it has to have a pretty picture! Or memorable picture, at least • Narrative Bias People prefer tidy stories with beginning, middle, and end. Science doesn’t really work that way! • Fairness Bias you need to present both sides of the story, right?

  20. Commercial Bias • Choice of adjectives to sell a story • “Breakthrough,” “scientific frontier,” and superlatives like “biggest,” “farthest,” and “first” • It has to be interesting! More on that later when we discuss the sobering numbers for stories to make the news.

  21. Bad News Bias • The scare tactic reporting, often tied to things like asteroids • If there’s even a remote chance it could hit us, it’s a story • Even silly notions like LHC making a black hole that will swallow us all

  22. Fairness Bias • It is correctthat science is the competition of multiple theories being tested and interpreted, but dangerous: • Media understands this, will include point and counterpoint in articles • Can be grossly non-representative! • Often called “False Balance” • Bias is to often over-weight discounted theories

  23. False Balance Example:Global Climate Change • Boykoff & Boykoff media study • Between 1988 and 2002, over 3500 articles on global warming in NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, LA Times • More than half gave equal representation to the anthropogenic side and the natural causes side • Actual percentage of established climate scientists on anthropogenic side is up to 99% • Ask the public the same question, and the percentages more closely track the time fractions shown in the media

  24. Visual Bias • Astro stories almost MUST have a pretty picture associated • The key to Hubble Space Telescope good will • Pictures don’t have to be “real,” they could be devised by an artist, too (hence the extrasolar planet images at the beginning of this lecture!)

  25. Narrative Bias • Forcing a story to some science • Popular example: the “Eureka!” moment • Suggesting a long-standing question has been conclusively answered • Rarely how science works! Even the answers are often proven incorrect, and such events don’t usually don’t qualify as news stories • Think back to faster-than-light particles last year… • Prior notes on science as a race, personal interest, sorts of narrative bias

  26. Narrative Bias Quote • Emily Willingham quote (specifically in regards to op-ed piece on autism):"the problem with writing about science... is that science isn't just a story. It's about facts and open questions, and it's almost never defensible to write as though a door has closed, a box has been checked, or a mystery has been completely solved. We owe it to readers to avoid simplification to the point of a sin of omission and to avoid overinterpreting to the point of hyperbole."

  27. Other Biases • Chronological the flavor of stories reflects the time period. Probably a form of commercial bias (it’s what sells at the time!) • Training reporters have different backgrounds • And the readers themselves!

  28. Chronological Bias • Culture of time period also a form of bias • History of science journalism, for example • Example of David Perlman (from Nelkin, Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology) • Acclaimed science writer; former president of NASW • Served in WWII, then started reporting in Europe and by the 1950’s around San Francisco. Became science writer in late 1950’s. • Next slide details character of his writing over three decades

  29. Chronological Bias • 1950s Science as hero, technology improving lives • 1960s language is enthusiastic and inspirational (space program and Apollo, nuclear power to solve energy woes) • Hyperbole in language, little discussion of complications (e.g., pesticides are great!) • 1970s more cold facts, attention to hazards • 1980s blend of 60s & 70s; increased disillusionment (Challenger, Three Mile Island, Love Canal…)

  30. Bias of Reporters: Training • Different reporters have different backgrounds • Earlier generations usually had no science training, learned on the job • Can work, if they have good journalistic integrity (report facts, mix in critical thinking) • Reporters with science training face double-edged sword: • Can be overly enamored with scientists (too much respect for them, won’t ask probing questions) • Or have critical thinking skills and be better able to pose the right questions

  31. Bias and Readers/Viewers • If person knows nothing about a topic, the usual response is to accept the reported science • If a person has some knowledge, they are most likely to interpret the reported science in a way that confirms their established biases • This is a lot like status quo bias!

  32. To Journalists…from Scientists • Typically, universities and organizations have public relations offices that represent the interface between the science and the journalists • Public interest equates to FUNDING, better standing for attracting top scientists and students • Act as buffer between scientists and journalists (scientists fear of being misquoted or misrepresented)

  33. Science PR Organizations • American Chemical Society in 1919 were first science organization to organize a news service • Science organizations were eager to pair with Scripps Science Service when it began • Numbers grow throughout following decades • Hold seminars, put out press releases • Journals tie in • Often embargo results, send advance copies to journalists • Idea is to increase prestige factor of the journal

  34. The Proliferationof Press Releases • Science writers often receive hundreds of press releases a week, along with letters, phone calls, and copies of proposals • They also read through science journals, and attend meetings and conferences • Often need to have “sources” - scientists they have worked with in the past who can help them sift and vet • Win a Nobel, become a valued source

  35. Press Releases and Astronomy • In very rough terms, about one published paper in 30 garners a press release • No guarantee that a press release leads to a story picked up by the media! • Any published paper thus has a very small chance of finding its way to the mainstream media

  36. Astronomy in the Media • Generally follows the mold of organizations and universities having a dedicated public relations officer • Scientist does the study, works through press officer to publicize it • Put out press releases • Usually about a page • Pretty image required! (visual bias) • Supply the metaphor (kind of narrative bias) • Often in conjunction with meetings • AAS annual meeting: maybe 100 releases, around ten formal press conferences • Many of these are held by journalists, not used

  37. Example • Knight Science Journalism Tracker • Outstanding website! Knight Science Journalism school at MIT • Follows science reporting, with summary of science news, commentary on how it has been reported, and listing of links for press coverage and press releases

  38. KSJ and Double Tatooine • Lists 12 articles • Most are popular science sites (, Sky & Telescope, Science News, etc.) • A few national media (LA Times, BBC, etc.) • There are others not included! • 2 press releases • Official NASA press release • San Diego State University press release (lead author at SDSU) • Has more information, same images

  39. KSJ and Double Tatooine • Tatooine analogy not in press release, but was widely covered last year • Same general find, single planet • Narrative bias, commercial bias • “Goldilocks” zone also a prior analogy for extrasolar planets • Why now? IAU meeting in Beijing • KSJ has short blurbs noting which stories took which angles, which regurgitated press releases

  40. Astro in the Media: Popular Topics • Solar System • Strong NASA presence • Exoplanets • Black holes • Distant universe • New facilities, technologies • (and “people” – awards, press photos, etc.)

  41. Astronomy Press Offices • NASA • • Often multiple releases per day! • “Great Observatories” • Four of them, big satellites, each hitting a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum • Mostly have their own press offices and machinery (hosted by or associated with universities) • BIG source of funding for astronomers comes from grants through them

  42. Astro Press Offices • Hubble Space Telescope (the first Great Observatory, optical and ultraviolet) • • Generally one per week • • Monthly images, often tied to Hubble site releases • Press office has a chief, a media coordinator, a writer, and an imaging guru • Side notes: science of presentation • Tailored based on studies showing what colors and orientations capture people’s interest!

  43. Astro Press Offices • Other Great Observatories follow HST lead, carefully using pretty images with releases: • Chandra X-Ray Observatory (GO #3, X-rays) • • About 20 releases per year (often in conjunction with other press offices) • Spitzer Space Telescope (GO #4, infrared) • • Similar frequency of releases (about 20 a year)

  44. Astro Press Offices • Sloan Digital Sky Survey • • About 10 releases per year • National Radio Astronomy Observatory • • About 20 per year • Personal:

  45. Astro Press Offices • Locally, there’s a UMCP press office that will put out releases: • • Often related to satellite missions led by UMCP astronomers • Aside: companies get the contracts to build spacecraft and instruments - another aspect to advertising and bringing in funding

  46. Group Projects • Basics: Groups of 4 students, each group will present an astro news item to the class (10 minutes) and produce a short write-up (a few pages) • Schedule: start Sep 26, then every 3rd week thereafter • You’ll have to pick a date! • Contact me with persons in group, when you want to present, and topic (topic can come later)

  47. Conclusions • Journalism and Science share ideals: • Presentation of fact and critical reasoning • After that, it’s filters: • Story needs to be interesting, and rapid developments sell better than incremental knowledge (so most science goes unreported) • Journalists supply their own bias • Training, time period/culture, etc. • Stories presented to journalists usually cultivated by PR wings of science institutions • What you should do: apply your own critical thinking! Anticipate biases.