The Mars media circus August 13, 2010Posted by Simon in Uncategorized.
There are some fascinating media aspects to this controversy. Most of what follows comes from Vincent Kiernan’s incredibly thorough article in the journal Public Understanding of Science, The Mars Meteorite: A case study in controls on dissemination of science news (the abstract is free, access via your university library for the full article).
Back in mid-July 1996, the journal Science had accepted David McKay’s paper with the hypothesis that ALH84001 had evidence of fossilised life from Mars. Rumours about a big Mars announcement from NASA had been circulating even prior to this, but it took the scientific press awhile to put all the pieces together. It wasn’t until the 5 August issue of Space News, a small industry trade paper, that a journalist went public with a (still speculative) story about the meteorite finding.
The rumours continued to grow and eventually NASA and Science were under pressure to confirm the stories prior to the paper’s publication in the 16 August issue of the journal.
Even the White House got involved – President Clinton was briefed on the story, which eventually led to a scandal. Dick Morris, one of President Clinton’s advisors, happened to brag to a call girl that he was one of only 7 people in the world that knew about life on another planet. After the meteorite story became public, she got in contact with a tabloid magazine, which published a story that led to Morris’ resignation.
Eventually Science and NASA released the paper early with no embargo, and NASA held its famous press conference on 7 August. Last night I watched David McKay give a presentation to class at Stanford (search for Astobiology and Space Exploration in iTunesU if you’re interested) and he described the press conference, and the fallout from it, like this:
…we announced our findings, in Washington, and indeed that was a terrible circus, with hundreds of cameras and lots of questions, and the head of NASA and a few sceptics, and I’m not sure we ever recovered from that. It was a big news event and it was clearly something that got into the media in a big way, and that was not really our intent, but that’s what happened. The point of this is that the press blew it up much more that what we had actually said in the paper; if you read the paper it was fairly conservative and the press is not used to grey – they like black and white areas, so that’s what happened.