“This shows how important an experienced, trained and authoritative science journalism staff of reporters and editors is,” AP science reporter Seth Borenstein wrote in an e-mail, responding to questions about the blog frenzy. “While the blogosphere has the luxury of speculating, The Associated Press seeks to be the definitive source through careful reporting and knowledge of the subject area.
“In this case it would take about two minutes to get it right. The actual story is not nearly as sensational as what’s being reported in the blogosphere. As a reporter who has covered astrobiology for more than a decade, I can tell you it has nothing to do with little green men or anything alien. Astrobiology is a series of little steps on Earth and beyond. Experienced science reporters know how to interpret the press release that got the speculation going. There is still a place for solid journalism.”
The problem is that in today’s fast-paced, modern media world, online press releases can get picked up by those without access to EurekAlert! and go viral long before the embargo is up. That problem has not escaped the people at AAAS, which sent a special note on Wednesday morning to all journalists who receive its embargoed press releases.
“A number of journalists have contacted the [AAAS press] office with questions about the Science embargo after seeing mostly erroneous online and/or tabloid speculation about the forthcoming research,” the e-mail said. “These reports clearly are not based on the peer-reviewed research being published under the auspices of the journal Science.”
Nonetheless, AAAS decided that the speculation was not sufficient reason to lift the embargo early. The AP’s Borenstein also defended the system.
“While the embargo system may have issues, I embrace it because it gives us a chance to provide context, outside comment and above all get it right,” he wrote in an e-mail. “In this hectic media environment, more than ever the world needs science reporters and editors who understand what’s happening, can tell fact from speculation, put phrases in context, be definitive and above all get it right. This whole sorry affair provides the proof of that.”
That may be so, but the question remains: Can anything be done to discourage misinformed, runway blogging that can lead to so much public confusion? In his post for Discover, Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait noted that he didn’t have any concrete solutions, but that faulty press releases have created problems many times in the past.
“I don’t want to blame anyone,” he wrote, “but I do sometimes wish the press folks at NASA were more aware of what kind of cascade a line like [the one about extraterrestrial life] provokes (like the one from a few weeks ago which said it was about “an exceptional object in our cosmic neighborhood” but it turned out to be a supernova/black hole 50 million light years away). When announcements like these go public, it’s bound to be disappointing when the actual news gets out and it’s not a black hole right next door or actual life on Mars.”
That, Plait said, can lead to “news fatigue.” It can also erode trust in science and journalism. Understanding that, the only hope may be that all sides—scientists, press officers, and journalists alike—will tread more carefully. Scientists and press officers need to avoid cryptic yet proactive news releases. And journalists (as well as amateur bloggers) must resist the temptation to jump to conclusions without first checking their facts.
[Update, Dec. 8: Embargo Watch’s Ivan Oransky got the following response from Dwayne Brown, senior public affairs officer in the office of communications of the NASA Science Mission Directorate, when he asked if the agency regretted using the phrase “extra-terrestrial” in its initial press release:
“It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback. However, the statement was accurate.
“The real issue is that the reporting world has changed because of the Internet/bloggers/social media, etc. A “buzz” term like ET will have anyone with a computer put out anything they want or feel. NASA DID NOT HYPE anything - others did. Credible media organizations have not questioned NASA about any text. Bloggers and social media have ..it’s what makes our country great—FREEDOM OF SPEECH.
“The discussion now is about the science and next steps.”
Calling the press release accurate relies on a technicality, however. A statement can be factually correct and misleading at the same time, due to ambiguity, tenor, or a dozen other rhetorical factors. Moreover, “pitting” (as Oransky put it) blogs against “credible media organizations” belies the fact that blogs at The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, and CBS News were among those that fed the speculation about aliens.]