Newshounds from Outer Space
Why the wire services are the black holes of science reporting
-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study In Scarlet
Being a teenager in suburban Toronto in the 1950s is a fate I would wish on no one. My favorite escape was those black-and-white science-fiction movies with titles like Invasion of the Saucer Men and It Came from Outer Space that Hollywood was churning out almost weekly for the drive-in market. I think I saw everyone ever made. The one consistency about them-apart from wooden acting and bogus special effects -was scientific illiteracy. The astronomy goofs were especially abundant. The leader of the extraterrestrials would say, “We are from the star you call Ursa Major.” Now any Boy Scout knows that’s wrong. There is no star Ursa Major: it’s a constellation of many stars. I used to wonder why the script writer never spent a few seconds to look up terms like that in an astronomy book or even an ordinary dictionary.
Around the same time I started reading the newspaper. I noticed the same thing. When a new astronomical discovery was reported one could almost always find a glaring (to me, anyway) conceptual blunder, such as calling a planet a star or using light years as a measure of time instead of distance. To someone who knew something about the subject, significant parts of the story made little sense. They must have made even less sense to anyone else.
A lot has changed over the last Quarter century. Movies have made a remarkable transition. To keep pace with what Hollywood calls “a new audience sophistication,” millions of dollars are lavished on films such as 2010 to achieve accurate portrayals of celestial environments and scientific dialogue.
cience writing in magazines is, in general, also vastly superior to the stuff appearing a generation ago. Science 86, which folded last summer after a seven-year run, achieved what was probably the highest standard of science writing of any large-circulation specialty publication. It packaged the top writers with clear, instructive graphics and sharp editing. According to insiders, its demise was due to timidity on the part of the publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, rather than lack of acceptance of its product. Losses were far less than those of Discover, its arch-rival, which ultimately absorbed Science 86’s subscription list. Discover, published by Time Inc. since 1980, now has the field to itself, and occasionally serves equally brilliantly crafted pieces. Other sources of the best in the field are the rare but splendid science pieces in The New Yorker, some of the longer features in Popular Science and Omni, and a wonderful little weekly, Science News.
Unlike the situation 30 years ago, most major newspapers now have fulltime science writers who care about getting it right and know a bungled story can, among other things, mean the loss of an important source. For quantity as well as competency, nothing beats the Tuesday science section of The New York Times. But there is still one big problem area: wire-service stories generated by stringers or general reporters. The way they treat science is, for me, one of the mysteries of the universe. Wire-service stories run by newspapers still read as if they were written in the 1950s. The worst offenders are AP and CP, the two most used services in Canada. Almost daily they grind out gee-whiz pieces of questionable merit. Some of this stuff can make it to the front page, a prominence that a flawed political piece, for example, seldom achieves.
An illustration of what I mean occurred last October. I suspected one of these inept reports had hit the wire after I started receiving phone calls from local radio stations about an “exploding star that will be visible tomorrow night.” Indeed, the source was an AP item about researchers monitoring the star system Cygnus X-3, which was expected to repeat one of its periodic eruptions. The piece stated earth would be bathed in radiation from the stellar explosion in the constellation Cygnus. Crucially, what it failed to point out is that only special detectors on observatory telescopes could monitor the blast. There was no way it could be seen by well-equipped amateur astronomers, let alone someone standing in a backyard gazing at Cygnus. Yet the clear implication was that the whole sky would light up if you went out to look at the right time. And that’s what those people were calling me to find out. This scenario is repeated in one form or another several times a year, almost always originating with a wire-service item.
It’s also clear that major wire services still treat science as a fringe interest. In its year-end compilation of the 200 top Canadian and world news stories of 1986, CP listed only one science item: University of Toronto chemist John Polanyi’s Nobel Prize. Significant omissions included the federal cuts to the National Research Council budget and the ensuing uproar, and the Voyager spacecraft encounter with Uranus, certainly the year’s outstanding science and technology achievement. Halley’s Comet, which generated millions of words of worldwide newspaper copy in 1986, wasn’t mentioned either. In the broad technology classification, the inventory included the Challenger disaster (two entries), Chernobyl (three entries), the Titanic photos and the Voyager round the-world flight. Advances in medicine rated one entry: Canada’s first artificial heart implant.
Maybe I am overly biased in feeling something is amiss when South African issues, for example, merited eight separate listings in the CP roll while science, technology and medicine got a combined total of nine-five of them due to the worst spacecraft and nuclear disasters in history. That, plus the persistent inaccuracies, confirms for-me science’s fringe status.
When science writers talk shop at scientific meetings or around a bar table, variations of this same theme emerge time after time. It is the vocation’s Loch Ness monster story. Holmesian editors don’t know anything about science, and could care less, the story goes. If they knew more, or realized the level of their readers’ interest in science, they would com. mission more items. Science writers would get more work and the reading public would be better served in this important area.
There is certain justification for the grousing, but the contention that more science reporting would automatically improve the situation is debatable. The enterprising reader can seek out dozens of magazines and countless books on every conceivable aspect of science. I once had subscriptions to 42 science and nature publications and three daily newspapers noted for their science coverage. I couldn’t read them all. I still get about 20 magazines and the pile yet to be read beside my desk is constantly a foot thick.
The issue is not so much the quantity of science writing but how good it is. Today, the worst of it is seen the most. Given the obvious ghetto science occupies with the wire services, I wish they did less. In the 1950s, when I used to complain about ignorant extraterrestrials, my movie-going buddy Fat Ted would just laugh. “Who cares?” he would say. “It’s only a movie.” But the movies got better. Unfortunately, the wire services-‘-the source for most readers’ science writing-haven’t caught up.
Terence Dickinson has won several national and international awards for science writing. He is author of six astronomy books, writes a weekly column for The Toronto Star and is a regular contributor to Equinox magazine.