Best of 2010: The Observatory

Curtis Brainard picks the top stories from 2010

1. “New” Media Crucial in Aftermath of Haitian Earthquake With standard telephone, radio, and television communications disabled, “new” media platforms such s Twitter, Skype, and YouTube, were critical to delivering early information about damage and relief efforts in the aftermath of the 7.0 earthquake that rocked Haiti on January 12.

2. Reporters Doubling as Docs in Haiti Following the earthquake, for the first time ever, all of the major domestic TV news networks deployed doctor-reporters to the scene of a natural disaster. Treating injured patients whilst covering the recovery and relief efforts, they sparked debate about journalistic ethics and the role of M.D. medical correspondents in crisis situations.

3. MIA on the IPCC After it broke in the British press that the Intergovernmental Panel on climate change had overestimated the melt rate of Himalayan glaciers in its 2007 assessment report, controversy began brewing overseas. But rather than address the mounting attacks on the panel’s credibility, many of which were unfounded, the American press sat passively on the sideline.

4. Whither the Watershed An in-depth survey of science and environment reporting in across the Ohio River Valley, one of the country’s most important, and often imperiled ecosystems, which drains a total area of approximately 141,000 square miles and includes portions of ten states.

5. A “Slick” Numbers Game The day after the Deepwater Horizon sank in the Gulf of Mexico, estimates of an oil leak ranged from nonexistent—the Coast Guard’s first guess on April 23—to a potential 336,000 gallons per day, which is what the exploratory rig was pumping before the explosion. By April 25, after further reconnaissance by remotely controlled submersibles and sonar, the Coast Guard and BP reassessed, settling on an estimate of 42,000 gallons per day. Yet it was not until April 28, after gullibly reporting one figure after another, that the press began to question how authorities were arriving at the estimates.

6. EPA Officials Demand Anonymity Twice in a period of three months, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered reporters not to name the agency officials participating in media conference calls, frustrating a number of the journalists involved who complained that transparency problems at the EPA go beyond anonymous sources on teleconferences.

7. The Oil Plume Paradox Months after the BP’s leaking well was capped in mid-July, pinpointing the amount of oil lingering in the Gulf of Mexico continues to be a source of frustration for journalists and scientists alike, with multiple, contradictory—if not necessarily “dueling”—research reports being published on the subject over the span of just a few weeks.

8. Close Encounters of the Media Kind In December, bloggers at a few of the country’s top news outlets engaged in wild, unsubstantiated speculation about the discovery of aliens after a cryptic press release issued by NASA said the agency would be holding a news conference “to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Professional reporters with advanced access to the embargoed research paper upon with the conference was based knew, of course, that the news was much more terrestrial in nature.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , ,